Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders

An summary of characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Provided by helpguide.org

In both children and adults, the signs and symptoms of the autism spectrum disorders include problems with social skills, speech and language, and restricted activities and interests. However, there are enormous differences when it comes to the severity of the symptoms, their combinations, and the patterns of behavior.

Keep in mind that just because your child has a few autism-like symptoms, it doesn’t mean he or she has an autism spectrum disorder. The autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed based on the presence of multiple symptoms that disrupt your child’s ability to communicate, form relationships, explore, play, and learn.

Where does your child fall on the autism spectrum?

The three autism spectrum disorders share many of the same symptoms, but they differ in their severity and impact. Classic autism, or autistic disorder, is the most severe of the autism spectrum disorders.  Milder variants are Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes called high-functioning autism, and PDD-NOS, or atypical autism. According to the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, only 20% of people on the autism spectrum have classic autism. The overwhelming majority fall somewhere on the milder range of the spectrum.

Since the autism spectrum disorders share many similar symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other, particularly in the early stages. If your child is developmentally delayed or exhibits other autism-like behaviors, you will need to visit a medical professional for a thorough evaluation. Your doctor can help you figure out where, or even if, your child fits on the autistic spectrum.

Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Social skills

Basic social interaction can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include:

  • Unusual or inappropriate body language, gestures, and facial expressions (e.g. avoiding eye contact or using facial expressions that don’t match what he or she is saying).
  • Lack of interest in other people or in sharing interests or achievements (e.g. showing you a drawing, pointing to a bird).
  • Unlikely to approach others or to pursue social interaction; comes across as aloof and detached; prefers to be alone.
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, reactions, and nonverbal cues.
  • Resistance to being touched.
  • Difficulty or failure to make friends with children the same age.

Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Speech and language

Problems with speech and language comprehension are a telltale sign of the autism spectrum disorders. Symptoms may include:

  • Delay in learning how to speak (after the age of 2) or doesn’t talk at all.
  • Speaking in an abnormal tone of voice, or with an odd rhythm or pitch.
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over without communicative intent.
  • Trouble starting a conversation or keeping it going.
  • Difficulty communicating needs or desires.
  • Doesn’t understand simple statements or questions.
  • Taking what is said too literally, missing humor, irony, and sarcasm.

Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders: Restricted behavior and play

Children with autism spectrum disorders are often restricted, rigid, and even obsessive in their behaviors, activities, and interests. Symptoms may include:

  • Repetitive body movements (hand flapping, rocking, spinning); moving constantly.
  • Obsessive attachment to unusual objects (rubber bands, keys, light switches).
  • Preoccupation with a specific topic of interest, often involving numbers or symbols (maps, license plates, sports statistics).
  • A strong need for sameness, order, and routines (e.g. lines up toys, follows a rigid schedule). Gets upset by change in their routine or environment.
  • Clumsiness, abnormal posture, or odd ways of moving.
  • Fascinated by spinning objects, moving pieces, or parts of toys (e.g. spinning the wheels on a race car, instead of playing with the whole car).

How children with autism spectrum disorders play

Children with autism spectrum disorders tend to be less spontaneous than other kids. Unlike a typical curious little kid pointing to things that catch his or her eye, autistic children often appear disinterested or unaware of what’s going on around them. They also show differences in the way they play. They may have trouble with functional play, or using toys that have a basic intended use, such as toy tools or cooking set.  They usually don’t “play make-believe,” engage in group games, imitate others, or use their toys in creative ways.

Related signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorders

While not part of autism’s official diagnostic criteria, children with autism spectrum disorders often suffer from one or more of the following problems:

  • Sensory problems – Many children with autism spectrum disorders either underreact or overreact to sensory stimuli. At times they may ignore people speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf. However, at other times they may be disturbed by even the softest sounds. Sudden noises such as a ringing telephone can be upsetting, and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound. Children on the autism spectrum also tend to be highly sensitive to touch and to texture. They may cringe at a pat on the back or the feel of certain fabric against their skin.
  • Emotional difficulties – Children with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them appropriately. For instance, your child may start to yell, cry, or laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. When stressed, he or she may exhibit disruptive or even aggressive behavior (breaking things, hitting others, or harming him or herself). The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities also notes that autistic kids may be unfazed by real dangers like moving vehicles or heights, yet be terrified of harmless objects such as a stuffed animal.
  • Uneven cognitive abilities – The autism spectrum disorders occur at all intelligence levels. However, even kids with normal to high intelligence often have unevenly developed cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, verbal skills tend to be weaker than nonverbal skills. In addition, children with Autism spectrum disorders typically do well on tasks involving immediate memory or visual skills, while tasks involving symbolic or abstract thinking are more difficult.
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