What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability that impairs social communication or interaction and leads to narrow, restricted interests (fixation on certain topics or objects) and nonpurposeful, repetitive behaviors (such as repeating words or repeating body movements) that don’t seem to have a purpose. Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because of the wide range of symptom severity that people can experience.

What Are the Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can include:

  • lack of eye contact;
  • difficulty in establishing and maintaining back-and-forth relationships;
  • difficulty with back-and-forth conversations;
  • unable to understand other people’s actions or point-of-view;
  • delayed language;
  • having a limited range of interests;
  • having very intense interests on certain topics (such as numbers or facts);
  • repetitive actions that don’t have a purpose; and
  • having unusual responses to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and movement.

ASD Symptoms in Adults vs. Children

Identifying ASD symptoms in adults can be more difficult due to the wide range of symptoms and severity and the coping strategies that adults may have developed.Overall, the symptoms of ASD in adults are the same as in children, but may be less severe (e.g., less hyperactivity).

For children with relatively mild ASD symptoms, ASD may not be recognized until they reach school age. It's not unusual to diagnose someone with ASD as an adult. Parents with undiagnosed ASD may start to recognize their own symptoms after their child has been diagnosed with the disorder since ASD often runs in families.

Autistic teenage girl playing on computer with mother

Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder

The causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unknown. However, current research shows that there are genetic and environmental risk factors for developing ASD. 

These risk factors can include:

  • being male,
  • having a family member also diagnosed with ASD,
  • being exposed during pregnancy to inflammation (e.g., infections) and maternal metabolic disorders (e.g., hypertension or diabetes),
  • children born prematurely, and
  • being born to older parents (e.g., mother, father, or both).

Find an Autism Specialist

Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis

A psychologist, psychiatrist, or other health care provider will use diagnostic tests or interviews and observations to identify people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These tests allow a patient to demonstrate their social and communication skills while a trained provider observes the patient’s behaviors. 

A patient will be diagnosed with ASD if:

  • their behaviors and challenges match the pattern for ASD and
  • their developmental history confirms these symptoms began in early childhood.

Most patients are formally tested by a healthcare provider so they can receive a clear diagnosis, which helps them get access to the treatment they need.

For children, a primary care provider will screen them at 18 months and 24-30 months of age by having their parent complete an autism symptom questionnaire. If a parent's responses show that their child may have ASD symptoms, the provider will refer the child for an ASD evaluation. There currently isn’t an ASD screening test for adults that is recommended by the American Psychological Association. Adults interested in learning whether they have ASD can contact their primary care provider or visit our Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic (ASDC) for testing.

Counselor in therapy session with autistic child

Autism Spectrum Disorder Treatment

Our Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic (ASDC) offers treatments and interventions that can help people with ASD learn important social and behavior skills, cope with the challenges related to ASD, and manage their ASD symptoms.

Our treatments and interventions may include:

  • Social skill and recreational groups for children, adolescents, and adults
  • Individual/family therapy
  • Parent child interaction therapy (PCIT)
  • Behavior intervention
  • School consultations
  • Early intervention services
  • Parent training
  • Opportunities to participate in research to help us better understand ASD

Children and adults with ASD experience an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Our outpatient treatment and support helps patients manage these challenges and improve their experience of every day life.

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy

Our specialists commonly treat ASD with applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy—therapy that uses positive reinforcement to improve social, communication, and learning skills. This treatment has the most evidence to support its use in people with ASD.

For example, if your child is learning how to get ready for school in the morning, the specialist would create a list of pictures that represent each step of this task such as:

  • waking up,
  • brushing their teeth,
  • getting dressed, and
  • eating breakfast.

Completing each step may be reinforced with praise or an activity your child enjoys (e.g., playing with a favorite toy) before leaving for school.

Why Choose Huntsman Mental Health Institute

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) at University of Utah Health has the ability and connectivity to care for patients of all ages with severe neurodevelopmental disabilities at all stages of their disorder. Up to 70 percent of children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will have a co-existing mental health condition, like anxiety or depression. HMHI provides exceptional inpatient psychiatric care to help stabilize children, teens, and adults who are experiencing a severe mental health episode.

The HMHI’s Neurobehavior HOME (Healthy Outcomes, Medical Excellence) Program provides medical and mental health care in one location for Medicaid-eligible children and adults with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as ASD. This program is unique to U of U Health and to Utah. The HOME Program uses a holistic and proactive approach to address medical, psychiatric, behavioral, and social problems and help people with these disabilities optimize their ability to live in and engage with their communities.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic (ASDC), a partnership between the Department of Psychiatry, HOME Program, and HMHI, provides testing, behavioral consultations, and therapy for children, teens, and adults diagnosed with ASD. Our specialists work with different age groups to test for ASD and evaluate their executive functioning skills (ability to organize, plan, pay attention, and control emotions).

Outside the HMHI, the University Developmental Assessment Clinics (UDAC) also provide testing and management recommendations for children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.

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