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Understanding the Autistic Spectrum

Apr 24, 2017

If you were to stand in front of a panel of young people, could you recognize the autistic child? Probably not. The characteristics of autistic spectrum disorder are as varied as the people who live with it. That is one of the reasons why ASD is so misunderstood. What is an autistic spectrum? And why do we know so little about this disorder?

What Does Autistic Spectrum Mean?

Experts at explain that there isn't just one form of autism but many, and all are caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences. Presently, scientists have identified five types of autism:

  1. Asperger's Syndrome
  2. Kanner's Syndrome
  3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder
  4. Rett's Syndrome
  5. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Within each type lies a wide range of skills, symptoms, and unique challenges. That is what makes ASD particularly fascinating (and perplexing) for experts: it is a brain function based on exceptionally strong skills surrounded by weaker social and academic abilities. As a result, new layers of this disorder are still being discovered.

But He Doesn't Look Like He Has Autism

For Julia Connelly, PhD, clinical director of University of Utah Health's Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic, the challenge of addressing misdiagnoses is a constant process. "I think the main reason is because of the range autistic spectrum covers," she said. "People have an idea of what autism looks like, how people should behave, and when they see somebody who doesn't fit that image, they don't recognize that person as being autistic." She said that older individuals are often misdiagnosed with anxiety disorder or ADHD, but they likely have had ASD since they were young.

Dr. Connelly believes the prevalence of autistic cases is due to an increase in autism disorder and improved diagnosis methods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that determining a diagnosis is difficult since there isn't a definitive test. For example, a blood test won't provide a diagnosis. Instead, doctors rely on behavior and development patterns to make a diagnosis. Currently, 1 in 68 children in the US has autism. There is no cure for ASD, but early intervention is key.

Innovation in Training Could Be a Win-Win Situation

Generally, people living with ASD realize they don't know social rules and practices. They recognize what they lack, and they try to hide their symptoms by duplicating the behaviors they see in others. That desire to "fit in" often contributes to the difficulties doctors face in diagnosing ASD. As treatments and intervention strategies improve, Connelly says the medical community is finding effective ways to treat it, which is enabling many people to achieve independence and success.

Much of that success depends on teaching and training innovations. As any school-aged young person can attest, some teachers create more conducive learning environments than others. One classroom may be disorganized and chaotic while another classroom is dictated by strict, inflexible rules. Both circumstances create challenges for all students, especially those living with ASD. "Structure is helpful," Connelly said. "But if a teacher is inflexible and won't recognize alternative ways of relaying information, that becomes a barrier to autistic children."

Connelly believes successful training requires recognizing individuals. In fact, these strategies work well with children using all kinds of abilities because it focuses on the child's natural strength. For example, some students retain information better through visual cues or auditory instruction. And some students excel in math or science while others are drawn to creative writing or the arts. Other disorders, like ADHD or social anxiety, can benefit from updating teaching techniques, as well. "Changing teaching methods is the difference between an autistic child pursuing a college education or living at home with their parents thinking they cannot learn a skill," Connelly said. But existing training centers or programs, designed to teach life skills are limited.

Society Can Turn Challenges into Triumphs for Those Living With ASD

Autism creates a condition where a strong skill is surrounded by weaker abilities, and the potential for these individuals is yet untapped. "Autistic people will focus in on a topic and ignore other life skills," Connelly said. Not surprising, the corporate world has recognized the unique skills an individual with ASD brings to the workplace. That keen focus on a topic is making those with autism into influential experts in specific fields. "There are companies looking specifically to hire those with ASD," Connelly said.

There is still much to learn about this disorder. As scientists develop a better understanding of ASD, they are unlocking an exciting sense of optimism for those living with ASD. "We're not trying to take autism away," Connelly said. "Instead, we are focusing on ways to help people live productive, fulfilling lives while living with autism."