Those concerns you’ve had about your child’s development have now been confirmed by an official ASD diagnosis. If you’re like most parents, you might have felt a wide variety of emotions sweep over you from the moment you heard the word “autism” from the mouth of your healthcare provider—relief, fear, sadness, confusion, numbness, or perhaps even shock or disbelief. Whatever emotions you felt at that moment, chances are you didn’t hear much else your child’s provider said after he or she said “autism”.
So, what does an ASD diagnosis really mean for your child? The short answer is, “It depends.” One of the most important aspects to understand about an autism diagnosis is that symptoms and related challenges lie on a spectrum (hence the name Autism Spectrum Disorder), meaning they can vary greatly. Some children are quite severely impacted by their autism symptoms, while others are affected more subtly. How your child’s autism plays a role in his or her development might be very different than how autism affects your co-worker’s son.
Though autism symptoms lie on a spectrum and can vary greatly, there are a couple of “core” difficulties that the diagnosis is based on1. The first is a significant difficulty with social communication and social interaction. These difficulties can range from not being able to speak at all to difficulties with back-and-forth conversation and body language. These challenges with social interaction also frequently involve difficulties understanding and maintaining relationships with other people. The second core challenge in ASD involves restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (often termed “RRB” for short). Like the first core challenge of ASD, your child’s RRB won’t look exactly the same as another child’s. Some more common examples of how this difficulty might look include lining up toys or objects, echolalia or “parroting” others’ speech, or sensory sensitivities such as an extreme reaction to a certain sound.
In addition to the great variability in autism symptom severity, another key piece to what autism means for your child is what services (or lack thereof) your child receives. Countless studies have shown that intervening as early as possible by providing specialized, quality services can have a huge impact on a child’s autism symptoms. Some studies have even shown that providing children diagnosed with autism behaviorally-based, developmentally-informed early intervention services can alter their brain function and social communication development2. Following ASD diagnosis, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends that families obtain “evidence-based and structured educational and behavioral interventions”3. For more on evidence-based interventions for ASD, see this blog post.
Following diagnosis, it’s crucially important to find a healthcare provider who can help you navigate the world of autism treatments to find a solution that will be most beneficial for your child and his specific needs. Unfortunately, there is a lot of mis-information and false claims regarding autism splattered all over the Internet. Look for providers (which can be psychologists, physicians, BCBA’s, social workers, SLP’s, etc.) who specialize in treating ASD. It’s important for your provider to be broadly knowledgeable about autism in order to help provide recommendations and develop a treatment plan to best address how ASD affects your child.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
- Dawson, G., Jones, E.J.H., Merkle, K., et al. (2012). Early behavioral intervention is associated with normalized brain activity in young children with Autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 51, 1150-1159.
- Volkmar, F., Siegel, M., Woodbury-Smith, M., King, B., McCracken, J., Slate, M., & the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) Committee on Quality Issues (CQI) (2014). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 53(2), 237-257.