What is autism?
It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. In short, autism is a developmental disorder that impacts the nervous system and can severely impact one’s ability to communicate and interact with others. However, its effects can be wide-ranging, which is why it’s commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder. How it affects a person depends on where they are in the spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Unlike certain developmental disorders, ASD can impact people in a wide variety of ways. Individuals with autism can display different symptoms at different levels of severity.
Symptoms of ASD
- Behavioral – trouble keeping eye contact, compulsive behavior, repetitive words or actions, disproportionately upset over minor changes, obsessively follows routines
- Developmental – delayed development in facial expressions, name response, use of gestures, imagination-based play
- Cognitive – difficulty paying attention, hyperfocused on limited interests, delayed learning skills
There are also seemingly-unrelated symptoms that one may never consider, such as gastrointestinal issues. The list of characteristics associated with ASD is vast and every case is different. Two autistic children can display wildly different symptoms and appear to be experiencing two very different disorders, and yet they still fall under the umbrella of ASD.
At What Age Does Autism Develop?
The age of onset for ASD can range from the first few months all the way to three years of age. Children are often diagnosed after 3 years. Before that, it can be difficult to tell if autism is playing a part in a child’s development. For example, a child born with autism can gain skills and function like a non-autistic child, meeting the same developmental milestones, and then suddenly stop gaining new skills or even lose the ones they had.
Late-onset ASD refers to cases that develop after age 2. Older children, as well as teens and adults, cannot develop autism. Even if someone displays ASD-like symptoms at an older age, if those symptoms didn’t occur during early childhood, an autism diagnosis is not appropriate.
Nonverbal autism, or nonspeaking autism, is not a specific diagnosis, so different health professionals may describe the condition in different ways. In general, those with nonverbal autism have trouble communicating verbally and some may not speak at all. It’s estimated that 25-30% of autism cases are of a nonverbal variety.
It’s important to note that, simply because an autistic individual isn’t speaking, it doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to communicate, nor does it mean they’re less intelligent than other ASD individuals who do speak. Like many who are diagnosed with ASD, nonverbal individuals often go on to live full, independent lives.
Another factor that makes nonverbal autism hard to diagnose is that children with autism often experience delays in speech development, so just because a child isn’t speaking at the expected age doesn’t mean that they won’t fully develop those skills as they grow older.
A Wide Spectrum
As autism is a spectrum, and a wide one at that, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it means to be autistic. Diagnosing and working with ASD individuals is an ongoing process and one that requires a fluid and evolving approach to ensure that an individual’s very specific needs are being met.