Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism is a severe learning disorder characterized by

  1. disturbances in:
    • rate of educational development
    • ability to relate to the environment – motility
    • perception, speech and language
  2. lack of the representational-symbolic behavior that precedes language

Cases of ASD have risen around the country. For example, California has seen an increase of 200% in the last year. Recent studies are suggesting the prevalence rate is now as high as 1:300. Some of this increase may be a result of the expansion of the parameters for ASD. Additionally, two other factors may come into play:

  • doctors are more familiar with this disorder
  • improved diagnostic methods

As of this writing, there are no definitive causes of ASD. There are a number of theories which are being investigated in various studies worldwide. These include:

  • Genetic factors
  • Environmental influences


Social Interaction

Characteristics include significant qualitative impairments in the following:

  • Making and maintaining eye contact
  • Reciprocal social interaction
  • Understanding of social cues
  • Appropriate verbal responses
  • Appropriate emotional response


Characteristics include significant qualitative impairments in the following:

  • Non-verbal and verbal communication
  • The development of spoken language
  • Use of language – echolaic
  • The ability to initiate and sustain a conversation


Characteristics include significant qualitative impairments in the following:

  • Age and situationally appropriate behaviors
  • Flexibility – adherence to rituals or routines / perseverative behavior
  • Self-stimulation and restricted repetitive motor mechanisms (hand flapping)
  • Compliant behavior
  • Developing transition skills


  • Academic problems
  • Processing Delays
  • Attention Deficits
  • Poor Task Organization


This category covers many of the students within the education system.

The pervasive characteristic means it is a widespread distortion; developmental refers to characteristics which are typical in infancy and disorder refers to the deviant characteristics as opposed to delayed.

Asperger’s Disorder

  • average or high intelligence
  • no delay in speech but may have unusual way of speaking – “robotiks”
  • significant impairment in social interaction
  • may engage in repetitive behaviours (e.g. spinning objects)
  • may have excellent rote memory but does not understand the meaning
  • often intensely attached to particular possessions

Rett’s Disorder

  • almost exclusively found in females apparently normal or near normal development until 6-18 months
  • onset of poorly coordinated gait and trunk movements
  • severely impaired expressive and receptive language development
  • repetitive hand movements such as washing, wringing, mouthing
  • slowing rate of head growth
  • severe impairment in motor movement which could result in disorganized breathing patterns (apnea,hyperventilation)

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

  • very rare
  • apparently normal development for the first two years
  • significant loss of previously acquired skills in at least two of the following:
    1. expressive or receptive language
    2. social or adaptive behaviour
    3. bowel or bladder control
    4. play
    5. motor skills
  • restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour

The diagnosis of ASD is given by a doctor after observing impairments in social interaction, communication and behavior as outlined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV (DSM IV).  The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) may also be used as a reference.


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