What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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ASD and autism are general terms for what can be a complex disorder that relates to brain development.

Autism spectrum disorder, also known as ASD and autism, are general terms for what can be a complex disorder that relates to brain development. An autistic child or adult will have difficulties in interacting socially, verbally, non-verbally as well as displaying repetitive behaviours. The extent that these affect an autistic person will vary from one person to the next.

The varying degrees in which these symptoms show themselves can make it harder to interact with a child that is autistic. For those teaching assistant, teachers and those working in the care profession, training by attending autism awareness courses, for example, can provide valuable insight and skills in managing behaviour and so on.

What is autism spectrum disorder? – Securing a diagnosis

Until recently, securing a diagnosis varied from one local authority or health board area to the next. Autism is measured via a spectrum, a scale of how ‘bad’ or not autism affects the child or adult. This moveable scale meant that some children were misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all.

In May 2013, a new way of diagnosing autism came into being. This diagnosis umbrella for the first time recognised under one label, rather than distinct sub-types such as Asperger syndrome and so on.

The way in which autism manifests itself tends to be related to intellectual disability, as well as difficulties in motor coordination, and the ability to pay attention for a close period. There are times when some autistic children and adults can excel, to almost genius proportions, in music, math, art and so on.

Modern-day understanding is far more than in previous times and although there has been no one cause pinpointed as being the root of autism, it is thought to have its roots in very early brain development.

This is why obvious signs of autism tend to emerge between the ages of two and three.

How common is autism?

It is thought that in the UK, 1 in every 100 children is on the autistic spectrum, around 100,000 children. Diagnosis and understanding are improving all the time; thus, it may be that in coming years, this figure increases.

It is not a disorder that comes from parents doing something wrong; neither is it ‘naughty child’ syndrome. Currently, more boys than girls are diagnosed with autism – four times as many in fact. This is not because it is more prevalent in boys but more that girls are thought to exhibit autism in different ways. It may be too that we accept some of these behaviour patterns in the girl child, more than we do boys as a society, parents and so on, feel that these behaviours are more in line with their gender.

What are autism spectrum disorders and its causes?

Until recently, the answer would have been ‘no idea’. However, research is beginning to deliver some answers:

  • There is no one cause of autism, as there is no one type of autism
  • Mutations of some key genes have been discovered that are sufficient enough to give rise to autism but more work is needed to be able to use this information to prevent and treat autism effectively
  • Autism also seems to be influenced by environmental factors too on the early development of the brain

These environmental factors are related to before pregnancy, during and after the birth. Common denominators include parents being older, illness during pregnancy, shortage of oxygen during the birth itself and so on. However, these factors are not the sole reason for autism but are more likely contributory factors in a complex situation that we currently do not fully understand.

Being on the spectrum

Every child or adult who is autistic is unique. Some have exceptional abilities, but may struggle to communicate verbally or pick up on non-verbal language. Attempting to categorise everyone the same is not helpful in determining treatment, nor in how to manage certain behaviours and so on.

In some ways, securing a diagnosis can be a relief for many parents. Understanding it and how to deal with a child who may struggle to fit in is something that many people feel they need support with. Autism is not a label for naughty children, neither does it mean that a child is ‘thick’. Some autistic children will be considered to have additional learning needs, but other autistic children, with support, can thrive and function well in main stream education.

The complexity of autism means that information and training are key, and not just for the parents of autistic children. Teachers, teaching assistants, support staff and so on can all benefit from autism awareness courses. Raising acceptance, respect and support for people with autism are important and has helped enormously those people living with autism.

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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