Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) likely affects tens of millions worldwide. Sadly, despite ASD’s widespread impact, it’s frightening how little we understand about it.
Sure, great charities like Autism Speaks and Autism Rocks are doing great work to publicize the struggles of those who live with ASD and fund game-changing research into ASD diagnostics and treatment. These organizations undoubtedly make a difference—Autism Rocks wouldn’t have paid a cool hundred grand for their web domain otherwise.
But even the best-known autism organizations have limited resources. They can only do so much to spread the word about ASD. The best assets in the fight to understand and treat ASD aren’t deep-pocketed donors or brilliant scientists. They’re regular, everyday people like you—people who deal with autism every day, or know someone who does, or simply want to do more to help those directly affected by ASD.
Ready to do your part for those with autism spectrum disorders? You can start by understanding the symptoms—how to recognize them, how they progress and what can be done to mitigate them.
- Difficulty With Nonverbal Communication
One of the earliest signs of autism is general difficulty with nonverbal communication. Children with ASD may maintain awkward or socially inappropriate body postures—hunched, splayed, contorted—or engage in jerky and spontaneous movements that are difficult to interpret using standard body language cues or protocols. Children with ASD may also display unusual facial expressions or tics with little apparent relevance to the situation at hand. These expressions may change rapidly and without warning, or remain fixed for long periods.
- Speech Delays or Difficulties
Younger children with ASD often experience speech development delays. In some cases, children may remain almost entirely nonverbal well into their toddler years. In less pronounced cases, new words and phrases may come more slowly, or verbal communication may occur less frequently and with greater effort than in non-ASD children. According to WebMD, nearly half of children with autism never speak.
Children that do speak may only do so reluctantly. They may rarely or never initiate conversation. They may give short, neutral answers to direct questions, and rarely or never volunteer information without direct prompting. And they may trail off or become uncommunicative in the midst of conversation without prelude.
- Avoidance of Eye Contact
By itself, this is not predictive; plenty of shy children struggle to look peers or authority figures in the eye. But when coupled with communication difficulties, unwillingness to make and hold eye contact is an important signifier of autism and autism spectrum disorder. Indeed, children with ASD may actively recoil from eye contact in conversation, even with family members and trusted peers.
Echolalia is the repetition of spoken phrases. These phrases can have no apparent meaning to the listener—they may simply be strings of words that the speaker heard in or out of context. Alternatively, repeated phrases may be perfectly intelligible and appropriate in context, but may be spoken at inappropriate times.
- Difficulties With Humor and Turns of Phrase
Even if they’re verbally communicative, children with ASD may struggle to appreciate their interlocutors’ perspectives. This often manifests in the rigorous, literal interpretation of spoken statements. Humor is an early casualty, as are colloquial, nonliteral turns of phrase. Conversations typically go more smoothly when participants avoid figurative expressions or jokes—even well-established sayings like “raining cats and dogs.”
- Single-Minded Focus on Play Pieces or Inanimate Objects
Children with ASD often focus on inanimate objects rather than conceptual play. Intuitively, this behavior is related to the tendency to take things literally: Inanimate objects like puzzle pieces and figurines are tangible in a way that a make-believe role-playing game is not.
- Difficulty with Games Requiring Social Interaction
Children with ASD sometimes struggle to participate in games that require social or interpersonal interaction, including team sports and multiplayer strategy games. By the same token, children with autism excel at solo and one-on-one activities that don’t require complex social behaviors. And, though more research is needed, it appears that multiplayer video games may bridge the gap between social and nonsocial gaming: Though multiplayer games are social in a technical sense, they don’t require the same degree of direct communication or cooperation as real-world social games.
- Heavily Routinized Behavior
Children with ASD thrive in highly regimented, routinized environments. As they get older, they may architect these environments of their own accord. It’s important for parents, teachers and other caregivers to recognize the value of regimented activity and do whatever they can do minimize disruption and surprise in their charges’ daily routines.
- Behavioral Stereotyping
Children with ASD frequently engage in “stereotyped” behaviors. These aren’t behaviors that cleave to caricature, as we usually apply the word; rather, like echolalia, they’re repetitive, often quite simple actions that have little apparent context. Common stereotyped behaviors include rocking back and forth, shaking, mumbling, self-embracing or curling, and pacing. These behaviors may be instigated by disruptive or unpleasant events, such as a major diversion from routine or an unfamiliar adult barking commands. In other cases, they may have no apparent proximate cause.
- Compulsive Organization of Physical Objects
Children with ASD tend to organize and systematize, often with what appears (to non-ASD observers) to be a fierce compulsion. This behavior may arise out of a fixation with inanimate objects. In fact, children with ASD often organize and systematize items that they have on hand, including play objects. However, there’s virtually no limit to the variety of organizational schema that children and adults with ASD can pursue. Caretakers can often leverage these organizational habits to teach new skills in younger children with ASD.
Are you familiar with the key signs of autism? What are some other ASD signs you’ve seen in your peers and loved ones?
About the Author:
Terry Jenkins is a freelance lifestyle writer and mother of two based near Bend, Oregon.