What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex brain-based difference that impacts a person’s communication, sensory processing, social interactions, and behavior.

The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) estimates that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects 1 in 68 US children. It affects males 5 times more than females; 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls. The overall rate in Maryland is 1 in 55 children, 1 in 34 boys, and 1 in 161 girls.

While the exact cause is unknown, the CDC suggests that it is a combination of genetics and environment. There is no cure, however, there are many treatments and therapies for some of ASD’s symptoms.

Diagnostic Classifications
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

Autism Spectrum Disorders
A DSM-5 diagnostic classification
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

Social (pragmatic) Communication Disorder (SCD)
A DSM-5 diagnostic classification – not an ASD diagnosis

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) will more accurately recognize individuals who have significant problems using verbal and nonverbal communication for social purposes, leading to impairments in their ability to effectively communicate, participate socially, maintain social relationships, or otherwise perform academically or occupationally. Previous editions of DSM did not provide an appropriate diagnosis for people with such symptoms, which led to inconsistent treatment across clinics and treatment centers. For these individuals, SCD brings their social and communication deficits out of the shadows of a “not otherwise specified” label to help them get the services and treatment they need.

While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) does encompass communication problems, it also includes restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities and gives equal weight to both communication issues and repetitive behaviors. ASD must be ruled out for SCD to be diagnosed. SCD is characterized by a persistent difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication that cannot be explained by low cognitive ability. Symptoms include difficulty in the acquisition and use of spoken and written language as well as problems with inappropriate responses in conversation. The disorder limits effective communication, social relationships, academic achievement, or occupational performance. Symptoms must be present in early childhood even if they are not recognized until later when speech, language, or communication demands exceed abilities.

Source: http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Social%20Communication%20Disorder%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS
A DSM-IV diagnostic classification – individuals relate to this diagnosis, so it is included here

PDD-NOS is a condition on the spectrum that has those with it exhibiting some, but not all, of the symptoms associated with classic autism. That can include difficulty socializing with others, repetitive behaviors, and heightened sensitivities to certain stimuli.

The term "PDD" is widely used by professionals to refer to children with autism and related disorders; however, there is a great deal of disagreement and confusion among professionals concerning the PDD label. Diagnosis of PDD, including autism or any other developmental disability, is based upon the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association (Washington, DC, 1994), and is the main diagnostic reference of mental health professionals in the U.S. According to the DSM-IV, the term "PDD" is not a specific diagnosis, but an umbrella term under which the specific diagnoses are defined.

Asperger’s Disorder
A DSM-IV diagnostic classification – individuals relate to this diagnosis, so it is included here
What distinguishes Asperger's Disorder from Autism Disorder is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger's Disorder may be only mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger's Disorder may just seem like a normal child behaving differently.

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a neurobiological disorder on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. An individual's symptoms can range from mild to severe. While sharing many of the same characteristics as other Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD's) including Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), AS has been recognized as a distinct medical diagnosis in Europe for almost 60 years, but has only been included in the U.S. medical diagnostic manual since 1994 ("Asperger Disorder" in the DSM-IV).

Source: http://aspennj.org/what-is-asperger-syndrome

Parent Tips: Staying Ahead of the Game- The DSM-5 and Autism
In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the 5th Edition of the DSM. In a nutshell, the diagnoses of Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – NOS, and Asperger’s Disorder has been replaced by a single category entitled Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is a basic information guide about the recent changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

How do I explain my child's experiences to people unfamiliar with autism?

"Parent Tips: Explaining Autism Using Everyday Examples"

Download an Autism Fact Sheet from Pathfinders for Autism (PDF)

How do I explain the diagnosis to my child?

Parent Tips: "You Have Autism."

Additional Autism Resources
Autism Spectrum Disorders from the Centers for Disease Control

101 Noteworthy Sites on Asperger's and The Autism Spectrum

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