Few events are more distressing to a parent than when their child receives a diagnosis of a chronic, challenging mental condition like autism. Yet approximately one in seventy American children were diagnosed last year, according to the Center of Disease Control. Although the rates have been increasing over the past three decades, a portion of that increase is due to broadened diagnostic criteria.
Autism is not one single, fixed condition, but a term used to encompass a group of complex developmental disorders that vary in symptoms and severity. Two of the major types are autistic disorder and Asperger’s syndrome.
A child diagnosed with autistic disorder is a child who shows symptoms involving language, communication, and social difficulties, as well as unusual and sometimes obsessive behaviors. For example, a child may speak infrequently or struggle to be understood. He may avoid making eye contact and fail to pick up on social cues. He also may display unusual behaviors like spinning wheels, flapping their hands, or rocking endlessly. They can be hypersensitive to outside stimuli and may overreact in response. There can also be some academic challenges due to intellectual disabilities.
Autistic disorder is often called “classic autism,” because it encompasses the behaviors most people associate with the word autism.
Asperger’s syndrome wasn’t an official diagnosis until the early 1990s, when it was first added to the World Health Organization’s diagnosis manual and a couple years later to the American Psychiatric Associations’ manual of mental disorders. Until then, many psychiatrists used the term “high functioning autistic” to describe children who met the later criteria of Asperger’s syndrome.
Like children with an autistic disorder, children with Asperger’s syndrome will also experience difficulty expressing their feelings as well as in interpreting other people’s expressions, body language, and subtle verbal clues. They may struggle to maintain eye contact and speak in rigid or unemotional cadences. They are often rigidly scheduled, highly sensitive to change, and have intense, specific, brilliantly developed interests.
The major difference between these two types of autism is in the intellectual capacity. Children with Asperger’s syndrome generally have normal to extremely high IQs. The character Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, played by actor Jim Parsons, portrays a TV-exaggerated example of the syndrome.
There is a third major type of autism spectrum disorder with the unwieldy name “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified,” or PDD-NOS. This tends to be given to children who express some, but not all, autistic disorder symptoms, or express them more mildly. Knowing where your child falls on the autism spectrum is the first step in diagnosis and treatment. If you have any concerns, your pediatrician can guide you to a mental health professional for assessment.