Autism, or more specifically, the autism spectrum disorder, which is a diagnosis that encompasses the wide variety of symptoms and behaviors that we currently understand to be linked to autism, is a condition that has evolved in definition and understanding over the decades.
We know that autism and intellectual disability is separate, and that autistic children often struggle with learning disabilities, but that the two are distinct as well. So, in what way does autism affect child development, and is there a way to treat it, or improve the outcome?
To answer questions like that, we must first try to explain what autism is, and where the line is drawn between autism and other conditions that may be co-occurring, yet different.
What Is Autism?
Autism begins in the brain, and its symptoms and defining characteristics exist on a spectrum, meaning that it can develop and be expressed in many different ways. Some defining characteristics of autism in young children include slow social development, problems with speaking and communicating (or lack of speech), repeated phrases and words, repeated movements, rituals, strict routines, sensory issues (or complete lack of sensitivity to sudden changes), and more.
While behaviors and psychological symptoms are often used to identify potential cases of ASD in children, ASD also often comes with a myriad of physical symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, sleeping disorders, mood disorders, seizures, and forms of anxiety.
Autism is not an intellectual disability, which is a separate diagnosis. Intellectual disabilities are much rarer than autism and can leave a child with a much lower cognitive ability than their peers, causing difficulties with reasoning, math, decision making, and problem solving.
Autism is also not a learning disability, which typically refers to conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and ADD.
However, children on the spectrum may also be diagnosed with either an intellectual disability or a learning disability.
On a more complex level, symptoms and behaviors linked to autism exist on a spectrum because specific cases reveal specific strengths and weaknesses. Common weaknesses include the inability to grasp ‘big picture’ concepts, with a focus on details and individual parts rather than the whole, as well as social and psychological concepts such as regulating and controlling thoughts and emotions, and controlling behavior (executive function). Children with autism often possess humor and empathy, yet may struggle to display it, or struggle with concepts surrounding emotion and humor.
Autism is at least somewhat hereditary, as research has shown that cases of autism are more likely in families with a history of autism, as well as a history of specific genetic disorders such as Fragile-X and chromosome problems. Children can be diagnosed with a risk of having ASD before they are one year old, although it takes time for certain symptoms to begin.
Defining Child Development
While all children develop differently, there is a sequence and timeline among which most neurotypical children develop certain skills, specifically language skills, motor skills, and skills related to social interaction and planning. Some children develop much faster than others, and some children are impaired by developmental disorders, among which autism is one.
Autism slows child development, but the rate at which it affects child development varies. More than just that, the manner in which it affects child development differs as well. Some children exhibit more than one characteristic of autism, while others only exhibit one. For example, a child on the spectrum may struggle with central coherence (understanding how details come together) well as executive function, but they may not have any early problems with social interaction, or easily make friends. Some may only struggle with central coherence, but can plan ahead, and are quite social.
Identifying Weaknesses and Teaching Key Skills
ASD is identified early on in screening tests done on all children during regular checkups. Once confirmed and diagnosed, it’s a good idea to schedule appointments with an expert on ASD to assess developmental issues and identify issues that need to be addressed through intervention.
Early intervention for children on the spectrum can lead to marked improvements on all levels, from improving communication to behavioral control and planning. Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is a particularly effective tool in helping reinforce techniques that seem to help a child understand concepts they have trouble with.
Progress is Not Predictable
There is no strict timeline for how a child on the spectrum improves, or exactly how far behind they will be in matters of development. Even with autism, children develop differently and some lag behind further in certain areas than others. Early intervention can help make the greatest difference, but it can’t be said how much of a difference that will be. It’s important to discuss these factors with a psychiatrist.
The nature of the developmental issues that are common in ASD can also change in individual cases. That means that issues may arise later rather than early on, and issues that were once prominent may fade with time. This why regularly staying in touch with a professional is also important.
But Progress Is There
What research can tell us is that there’s plenty of hope when it comes to how children with ASD progress. This progress can be measured in part by how children adapt to weaknesses identified years prior, through intervention and schooling. While it’s difficult to predict where a diagnosis of ASD will go, children on the spectrum do adapt over time, especially with treatment.
We know that treatment works. We know that starting interventions for ASD early in children yields better results. We know that, while outcomes will differ and symptoms vary greatly, children adapt over time. We know that skills that might be nonexistent at first can be taught, with consistent and effective teaching methods.
But we still lack the research to promote specific approaches and determine what kind of an approach yields the most progress for any given case. ASD is still an incredibly complex disorder, and one with plenty of mysteries. But it’s a disorder that can be addressed, treated, and lived with.