Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that affects every child differently. In fact, there’s a common saying: If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.
No parent ever expects to hear their child has autism, and a diagnosis can feel overwhelming and frightening. You may be unsure how best to help your child, or confused by the whirlwind of information you’ve recently been exposed to.
While every individual is unique, autism typically affects a person’s communication abilities and social interactions. Whether your child’s autism is mild, with small impacts to their day-to-day life, or a disability that requires full-time care, educating yourself is one of the most important steps you can take to support your child’s growth and development.
We put together this informational guide to help you better understand how autism can affect your child’s communication abilities, common signs and symptoms, how autism is typically treated, and more.
Autism is a complex, lifelong disability that commonly appears during the early years of childhood. autism refers to a broad range of developmental conditions and behaviors characterized by challenges in speech and nonverbal communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interactions.
The phrase “on the spectrum” refers to a child’s diagnosis and symptoms falling somewhere on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism may be less severe and very minimally impact someone’s life. Or, autism can be a pervasive developmental disorder that requires significant support.
People with autism often find it difficult to have intelligible conversations or express themselves either through words, gestures, or facial expressions. They may have trouble picking up on social cues and understanding what people are thinking and feeling. And they may exhibit very specific interests or repetitive behaviors. For example, they may focus on specific objects (like a toy or television show), or resist any changes to their daily routines.
There are actually several different subcategories of autism based on symptoms and severity. While these were once thought of separate conditions, the medical community has since classified all of them under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders. However, you may still hear these referred to different names. They include:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in every 54 children has autism. A few other interesting statistics found in this study include:
Perhaps most importantly, this comprehensive study noted that: “Timely evaluation and identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) among young children continue to be important public health goals because evidence links early treatment and services for ASD with improved outcomes.”
The signs and symptoms of autism generally appear in the early stage of childhood development - often before the age of 3 years old. As mentioned, these symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Sometimes they’re very easy to observe, in other cases, they may not be noticeable or recognized until your child is school-age.
Therefore, if you notice any developmental differences in your child, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider or speech therapist. Early intervention is one of the most effective strategies to help a child with autism make progress and overcome their challenges.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), challenges associated with autism typically fall across communication, social skills, and behaviors. Below we’ve included some common symptoms relevant to each area.
Communication includes speaking, reading, writing, understanding, and language comprehension. Signs of autism can include:
A person with autism may have challenges relating to other people. They may have trouble making friends and associating with their peers, or may show an overall lack of interest. It may be hard for a person with autism to:
Children with autism may have a range of behavioral issues. These can include:
In addition to the symptoms above, there are several early warning signs that can signal a child may have autism. Of course, many children without autism can show these signs and behaviors - but it’s often better to air on the side of caution. If you notice any of these signs in your child’s first few years of life, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider and receive a thorough evaluation.
Most infants are very social creatures. Even at this early age, it can be possible to recognize signs of autism depending on how they interact with the world around them. These can include:
The signs of autism can be more apparent by a child’s second year. This is the age that children begin to really develop their language skills.
There is no known cause of autism. This has to do with the complexity of the disorder, as well as that fact that symptoms can vary dramatically. However, most researchers agree that certain risk factors, including genetic and environmental, can increase a person’s likelihood of diagnosis.
According to research, several different genes appear to be involved in autism, and the presence of these genes can increase a child’s risk. Some genetic mutations may be inherited, while others can occur randomly.
If a parent carries one or more of these gene mutations, they may be inherited by the child (even if the parents do not have autism). Again, the majority of these gene changes do not cause autism by themselves - but they can increase the risk of developing the disorder.
Researchers are continuing to explore whether factors such as complications during pregnancy, air pollutants, lead poisoning, or other environmental determinants play a role in triggering autism.
According to the Mayo Clinic, other factors may increase a child’s risk of developing the disorder, including:
Note: Despite extensive research, no research has shown a link between childhood vaccines and autism. This is a pervasive controversy that is unfounded and has no factual basis. In fact, the original study that ignited this debate initially has since been debunked and retracted due to misrepresentation, poor study design, and questionable research methods.
Diagnosing autism can be challenging. Your healthcare provider will generally look at your child’s developmental history, as well as their communication and behavioral attributes, to make a diagnosis.
While autism can sometimes be diagnosed at 18 months or younger, by age 2 most diagnoses performed by qualified professionals are very reliable. However, some children don’t receive a diagnosis until they’re older, even into their adolescent or adult years.
There are several steps involved in an autism diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines each of these three steps in great detail. Ensuring that your child is properly monitored, screened, evaluated, and diagnosed is imperative to getting them the care and services they need to live a productive and fulfilling life.
There are typical developmental milestones that most children reach by certain ages. These cover how a child plays, learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. The CDC provides a great checklist of milestones broken down by age.
Developmental monitoring observes how your child grows and changes overtime, and whether or not they meet these developmental milestones. This observation is usually the first warning sign that a child may have early signs for autism. That’s why it’s important that parents, guardians, caretakers, and educators participate in closely monitoring the child, as well as documenting and reporting anything that seems atypical or uncharacteristic. Notifying your child’s healthcare provider will empower them with knowledge to further evaluate your child and make a professional recommendation.
Developmental screening is a more thorough way to formally assess your child for autism - however, this is not a diagnosis.
Screenings often involve a brief test or questionnaire about your child. The tools used for developmental screenings are based on research, and ask questions about your child’s language, movement, thinking, behavior, and emotions. While these tests are typically administered by a doctor or nurse, they can also be done by other healthcare professionals as well.
If your healthcare provider recognizes a problem or heightened risk factor during the developmental screening, a more formal evaluation may be needed. This provides a comprehensive and in-depth evaluation of the child’s development, and is usually administered by a trained professional, such as a pediatrician, child psychologist, speech-language pathologist, or other specialist.
The developmental evaluation may include a more thorough examination of your child, a structured test for your child to complete, and questionnaires for you to fill out. The results help determine whether the child may have autism and any special treatments needed.
There is no known cure for autism, nor is there a non-size-fits-all treatment. The goal of treatment is to reduce autism symptoms, support the learning of social, communication, and behavioral skills, and improve a person’s ability to function in their environment.
The number of potential treatments can be overwhelming for parents, and may need to change over time. That’s why it’s imperative you work closely with your healthcare provider, as well as any other specialists such as a speech therapist. They’ll have you craft a treatment plan and strategy tailored to your child’s unique needs.
According to the Mayo Clinic, treatment options may include (but are not limited to):
Communication and speech-related challenges, like all autism symptoms, vary from person to person. Some individuals may not be able to speak at all. Others may love to talk, but have difficulty holding a conversation or understanding social cues like body language and facial expressions.
Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) play a key role in an individual’s treatment plan. They can help people with autism become more effective communicators and improve both their verbal and nonverbal communication skills. This can help individuals with autism improve their ability to form relationships and function in day-to-day life
Your speech therapist will work with you, your child, and your family to assess and evaluate communication strengths and challenges, and develop a treatment plan tailored to your specific goals.
Some of the skills your speech therapist will help your child with include:
Some children may be nonverbal. In these cases, there are many types of assistive devices and technologies to help them communicate. These tools are collectively referred to as Alternative/Augmentative Communication (AAC). Your speech therapist will provide guidance on whether your child would benefit from one of these tools, and teach you how to properly use them. Examples of AAC methods include:
No one knows your child better than you. And as a parent or guardian, no one is better positioned or prepared to support your child at home and during activities of daily living. Below are some recommendations on how parents can stay involved, be your child’s biggest advocate, and provide a safe and nurturing environment to help them grow, learn, and thrive.
We’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating: if you suspect something is wrong, seek help and treatment right away. Research has shown that earlier interventions and treatment lead to better outcomes. Early treatment can help reduce the symptoms of autism over time. Here are a few tips to stay engaged and proactive:
No one spends more time with their child than you. Making your home life safe, enjoyable, and tailored to your child’s needs will make it easier to accommodate their condition.
Many children with autism have speech-related challenges. However, as your child works on these skills, there are additional ways you can connect and bond with your child.
While you may find yourself spending a lot more time with your child, it’s important not to lose sight of your own needs. Raising a child with autism can require a lot of time, energy, and attention. It's easy to feel discouraged at times. However, for your own sake it’s essential that you prioritize your health and wellbeing.
Expressable matches families with a certified speech therapist trained to effectively evaluate and treat speech and language disorders related to Autism Spectrum Disorder. All therapy is delivered online via face-to-face video conferencing.
Your child’s age and development will influence how your speech therapist interacts with them through these video chat capabilities.
Ages 0-3: Parents work directly with their speech therapist to learn cues and at-home strategies so they can confidently practice with their child outside the session and improve their communication. For more information on the importance of parental involvement in their child’s speech therapy, click here.
Ages 3-6: Parents attend video sessions alongside their child so they both learn valuable skills from their speech therapist. Reinforcing these lessons outside the session will continue to promote at-home skill building.
Ages 7 and Up: Most children attend video sessions independently but parents are kept in the loop with updates and tips during each session.
Adults: Adults attend sessions by themselves, but are welcome to bring loved ones or family members as well.
Expressable is an online speech therapy practice committed to expanding access to quality services for everyone with a communication disorder. Expressable has pioneered a parent-focused care model that uses technology and education to integrate speech therapy techniques into children’s daily lives, improving outcomes and experiences.