- Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely-related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social skills, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. But the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two kids with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their behaviors and abilities.
If you’re a parent dealing with a child on the autism spectrum, you may hear many different terms including high-functioning autism, atypical autism, autism spectrum disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. These terms can be confusing, not only because there are so many, but because doctors, therapists, and other parents may use them in dissimilar ways
- Symptoms of ASD are social impairment, communication difficulties, and repetitive or stereotyped behaviors. Children may make little eye contact, tend to look, listen, and respond to people less, do not seek to share enjoyment of toys, respond unusually to anger or distress, fail or be slow to respond to their name, develop language at a slowed pace, or repeat words.
- There are three main types of autism spectrum disorder, and two rare, severe autistic-like conditions:
- Asperger’s syndrome: the mildest form of autism, Asperger’s syndrome affects boys three times more often than girls. Children with Asperger’s syndrome become obsessively interested in a single object or topic. They often learn all about their preferred subject, and discuss it nonstop. Their social skills are markedly impaired, though. They are often awkward and uncoordinated physically.Because Asperger’s syndrome is mild compared to other autism spectrum disorders, some doctors call it “high-functioning autism.” As children with Asperger’s syndrome enter young adulthood, though, they are at high risk for anxiety and depression.
- Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS): This mouthful of a diagnosis applies to most children with autistic spectrum disorder. Children whose autism is more severe than Asperger’s syndrome but not as severe as autistic disorder are diagnosed with PDD-NOS.
Autism symptoms in kids with PDD-NOS vary widely, making it hard to generalize. Overall, compared to children with other autistic spectrum disorders, children with PDD-NOS have:
- Impaired social interaction (like all children with autistic spectrum disorder)
- Better language skills than kids with autistic disorder, but not as good as those with Asperger’s syndrome
- Fewer repetitive behaviors than children with Asperger’s syndrome or autistic disorder
- A later age of onset
However, no two children with PDD-NOS are exactly alike in their symptoms. In fact, there are no agreed-upon criteria for diagnosing PDD-NOS. In effect, if a child seems autistic to professional evaluators, but doesn’t meet all the criteria for autistic disorder, he or she has PDD-NOS.
- Autistic disorder: When people use the term autism, it can mean one of two things. They may actually be referring to autistic disorder, or classical autism. But autism is often used in a more general sense to refer to all autism spectrum disorders. So if someone is talking about your child’s autism, don’t assume that he or she is implying that your child has autistic disorder, rather than another autism spectrum disorder. If you’re unsure what is meant, don’t be afraid to ask.
- Rett syndrome: Rett syndrome mostly affects girls. In general, children with Rett syndrome develop normally for 6–18 months before regression and autism-like symptoms begin to appear. Children with Rett syndrome may also have difficulties with coordination, movement, and speech. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy can help, but no specific treatment for Rett syndrome is available yet. Scientists have discovered that a mutation in the sequence of a single gene is linked to most cases of Rett syndrome. This discovery may help scientists find ways to slow or stop the progress of the disorder. It may also improve doctors’ ability to diagnose and treat children with Rett syndrome earlier, improving their overall quality of life.
- Childhood disintegrative disorder: CDD affects very few children, which makes it hard for researchers to learn about the disease. Symptoms of CDD may appear by age 2, but the average age of onset is between age 3 and 4. Until this time, children with CDD usually have age-appropriate communication and social skills. The long period of normal development before regression helps to set CDD apart from Rett syndrome. CDD may affect boys more often than girls.Children with CDD experience severe, wide-ranging and obvious loss of previously-obtained motor, language, and social skills. The loss of such skills as vocabulary is more dramatic in CDD than in classic autism. Other symptoms of CDD include loss of bowel and bladder control.