Online Degrees Blog Understanding autism spectrum disorder

Understanding autism spectrum disorder

21 March
Kind female teacher helping her student doing homework.

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a wide range of conditions and severities characterized by repetitive behaviors, challenges in social interaction, and communication difficulties.1

ASD is a spectrum condition, which means that although all individuals with ASD share some difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people need significant support in their daily lives, while others can live independently and have specialized talents or skills.2 Early autism diagnosis is crucial for timely intervention and support.3

This article will explore autism spectrum disorder, including its characteristics and challenges, and the benefits of raising awareness.

Characteristics and symptoms of ASD

People with ASD can experience a wide range of difficulties that can make life more challenging. As aforementioned, many of the characteristics and symptoms associated with ASD revolve around communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive behavior patterns, and sensory issues.4 Here’s a closer look at these behaviors and sensory issues.

Social interaction difficulties

A core feature of ASD is difficulty with social interaction and communication. People with ASD may have a complete lack of verbal communication, or they may not understand social cues, such as body language or tone of voice, in others. They may face challenges when trying to engage in conversations, struggle with eye contact, and have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.5

Restricted and repetitive behavior patterns

Individuals with ASD often display repetitive behaviors or have very focused interests. These behaviors can include repeating certain actions, having a profound interest in specific topics, and adhering strictly to routines to the point where any disruption is very upsetting. Repetitive movements, such as rocking or flapping hands, are also common. These behaviors may be comforting and help them manage anxiety or cope with overwhelming sensory stimulation.6

Sensory sensitivities

People with ASD may also have increased or reduced sensitivity to sensory input from any of the senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They might have specific food preferences based on texture or be uncomfortable with certain clothing materials. These sensory sensitivities can affect an individual's ability to engage in everyday activities. Sensory-friendly environments and accommodations can significantly improve the quality of life for someone with ASD. Many organizations now host sensory-friendly events specifically for people with these challenges.7

Diagnosis and assessment

Diagnosing ASD relies on observing a child’s development and behavior. Because it presents on a spectrum, signs and symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. Early diagnosis can help individuals with ASD access early intervention measures that improve developmental and adaptive skills.8

Early signs of ASD in young children include:

  • Limited eye contact8
  • Delayed speech and language skills8
  • Lack of social responsiveness8
  • Repetitive behaviors8
  • Unusual sensory interests or sensitivities8

There’s no single medical test for ASD. Instead, diagnosis is based on observation of the child’s behavior and developmental history. The process typically includes a developmental screening, which is a short test to tell if children are learning basic skills when they should or if there are delays. 
If this test raises concerns, a child may need a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, which is a thorough developmental history and observation of behaviors by a multidisciplinary team, possibly including a pediatric neurologist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. The evaluation may also involve hearing and vision screenings, genetic testing, and neurological testing.9

Supporting individuals with ASD

People with autism can benefit from support at different stages of development. Early intervention capitalizes on the brain’s remarkable plasticity during early development. These strategies often include therapies such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavior analysis (ABA), which are tailored for each child. Early interventions help children with ASD develop important skills, including speech, social interaction, and self-care, which foster their long-term growth and independence.10

When a child with ASD turns three, they may be eligible for special education services through the local school district. During their school years, they may have an individualized education plan that includes adapting teaching methods and classroom environments to accommodate the diverse needs of students with ASD. Strategies such as using visual aids, providing structured routines, and incorporating interests-based learning can improve engagement and understanding.11

Communication and social skills training can help people with ASD improve both verbal and non-verbal communication, leading to better interaction with peers and adults. Social skills training often includes role-playing, social stories, and group activities designed to teach appropriate social behaviors and emotional understanding. Through consistent and comprehensive support across these areas, individuals with ASD can achieve improved outcomes and a higher quality of life.12

Autism advocacy and acceptance

Autism advocacy and acceptance promote understanding, respect, and inclusion for individuals with ASD. These efforts emphasize the importance of recognizing that autism is a natural part of human diversity. Advocates work to dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions about autism, promoting a society where individuals with ASD are appreciated for their unique strengths and capabilities.13

There are many advocacy organizations and initiatives, such as the Autism Society, Autism Speaks, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. These groups champion the rights of individuals with autism, pushing for policy changes, providing resources and support for families, and raising public awareness through campaigns and community events. Their work helps secure better educational, social, and employment opportunities for people with ASD.14

Advocates also encourage people to recognize the neurological differences among people, including those with autism, as natural variations within the human population. Celebrations of neurodiversity aim to shift the narrative from one of deficit to one of difference, highlighting the distinctive contributions and perspectives that individuals with ASD bring to the world. Through raising awareness, the movement for autism acceptance is fostering a more inclusive and understanding society.15

Become an advocate for people with autism

If you’d like to make a positive impact in the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder, you can develop the skills you need through the online master’s in autism spectrum disorder program from the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences.

KU’s top-notch faculty are experts in research, teaching, and mentorship. They can help you learn to understand and influence policy in your school or organization and throughout your community. With KU’s #2 online master’s in special education programs, you can earn your degree entirely online at a pace that suits your schedule.16

When you finish, you’ll be well-situated to help people with disabilities live full and rewarding lives.

Contact a KU admissions outreach advisor today to learn more.

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