When it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorders, every child is unique. Some of those diagnosed with ASD may function quite well, even in an ordinary classroom, while others will need more educational, therapeutic, and clinical help. Understanding the variations in the different sub-categories of ASD is the first step in being able to communicate your child’s singular challenges to the people who can provide the most help.
Classic autism is the biggest category under the ASD umbrella. It’s a wide-ranging diagnosis that encompasses children and adults who have difficulty with social skills, communication, cognition, and behavior. There is great variation in how these symptoms are manifested and how strongly the child is affected, but a diagnosis of classic autism generally requires impairment across the board. These symptoms include:
• Being unwilling or disinterested in making social connections
• Difficulty in understanding other people’s feelings or picking up on social and nonverbal cues
• Avoiding eye and physical contact
• A delay or oddness in speech
• Difficulties in understanding language and communicating personal needs
• Literal thinking and an inability to understand jokes or subtext
• Repetitive body movements, clumsiness, or odd postures or motions
• Fascination with moving parts or an obsession with unexpected objects or subjects
• Lag in some cognitive functions
Asperger’s Syndrome is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Though first described by an Austrian physician in the mid-twentieth century, it has only been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association since 1994. Children who suffer from this disorder often struggle with social and communication skills, but tend to have a better grasp of language as well as normal or above-average intelligence. Because of these qualities, they are often diagnosed at a later age than most autistic children.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified
A PDD-NOS diagnosis is given to children who suffer from some or all the typical autism behaviors, but not in classical ways. PDD-NOS is frequently called atypical autism because of one of three reasons: the diagnosis is late-onset, the child’s behaviors don’t meet the assessment thresholds for classic autism, or the child exhibits only a few of the symptoms. About half of children diagnosed with PDD-NOS have the typical range of autism symptoms, but much milder. About a quarter have symptoms that closely mimic Asperger’s Syndrome, but are excluded from that category due to the presence of speech or cognitive impairments. The last quarter has symptoms typical of autism, but the symptoms don’t cover the full range of behaviors.
The correct diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder requires careful observation as well as the proper reading of cognitive, social, neurological, and behavior assessment tests by an experienced clinician. If you suspect your child may be suffering from an ASD, don’t hesitate to speak to your pediatrician or contact a trusted mental health professional.