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Understanding autism spectrum disorder
April 02, 2024
Young boy and his father play with blocks on the living room floor

    What is autism spectrum disorder and how common is it?

    Autism spectrum disorder is one of the many neurodevelopmental disorders with onset of symptoms – such as persistent differences in social interactions and restrictive repetitive patterns of behaviors – often before a child enters school. Children with autism may behave, learn and communicate in ways that are unique from other people.

    One in 36 children is estimated as having autism, with males four times as likely as females to be diagnosed. The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network has reported a 417% increase in prevalence of autism since 2000.  

    When and how is autism diagnosed?

    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at ages 18 and 24 months. Being a neurodevelopmental disorder, the onset of symptoms typically occurs in the early developmental period, however, the average age of diagnosis nationwide is 4.

    “There are currently no laboratory or imaging tests to diagnose autism which requires clinicians to thoroughly evaluate patients from the chronology of symptom development and its progression in order to make an accurate diagnosis,” said Dr. Parna Prajapati, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at our Virginia Treatment Center for Children.

    Families are also encouraged to keep an eye on children’s behavior and development as they grow.

    Early signs of autism may include:

    • Limited eye contact or other interactions (usually the most notable sign)
    • Delayed language development (very few or no meaningful words by 24 months of age)
    • Repetitive behaviors, like flapping arms or lining up toys and becoming extremely distressed if they’re moved

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Text Revision, the standard clinical resource for autism diagnosis used by mental health professionals, currently categorizes autism in three severity levels:

    • Level 1 – requiring support, difficulty initiating social communication, decrease in baseline interest in social interactions, inflexibility of behavior
    • Level 2 – requiring substantial support, verbal and nonverbal social communication deficits are prominent, some initiation of interactions, difficulty coping with change
    • Level 3 – requiring very substantial support, severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication skills, extremely limited initiation of social interactions, extreme difficulty coping with change

    Identifying and seeking care for autism

    Recognizing early signs and seeking help for autism and commonly associated conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can help children improve communication, learning and social skills that will be beneficial for years to come. Early intervention may include formal psychological testing, speech therapy, occupational therapy or referrals to other providers to address co-occurring conditions.

    “At Virginia Treatment Center for Children, I provide psychiatric evaluations for patients who have been diagnosed with autism or developmental delays primarily requiring help of medications to address things like severe aggression, inattentiveness, anxiety, sleep issues, hyperactivity, obsessive behaviors, etc.,” added Dr. Prajapati. “While we know there are no medications addressing the core symptoms of autism, oftentimes medication treatment can help improve a child’s ability to participate in activities throughout childhood.”

    As a spectrum disorder, autism looks a little different – with a unique combination of symptoms, strengths and challenges – for everyone. Talk with your child’s pediatrician if you notice signs of autism. They can recommend appropriate testing and services to help your child achieve their full potential.

    Discover more about the care provided by Dr. Prajapati and team at Virginia Treatment Center for Children.

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