Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a term that refers to a group of developmental disorders. ASD encompasses a wide range of symptoms, skills and levels of disability, hence the term ‘spectrum’. Understanding spectrum disorders involves looking into their prevalence, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and management strategies. 

Understanding spectrum disorder is a complex task as it varies widely among individuals. It is a life-long condition that not only affects the individuals diagnosed with it but also their families and communities. However, with a coordinated effort from healthcare professionals, educators, families, and society at large, individuals with ASD can lead fulfilling and productive lives. Continuous research is crucial for uncovering more about the causes, early detection, and effective intervention strategies for spectrum disorders.


Prevalence of ASD

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASD affects approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States. Globally, ASD is estimated to affect around 1% of the population. It affects individuals across all ethnic, racial, and economic groups, but it is about four times more common among boys than girls. It is important to note that this could, at least partly, be due to underdiagnosing in girls and/or overdiagnosing in boys.


Psychiatry has traditionally classified autism as a mental disorder, but activits within the autism rights movement are now increasingly calling for a change where ASD with low support needs is to be seen as an aspect of normal human neurodiversity. From this point of view, a person with ASD should be accomodated rather than “cured”.

The neurodiversity perspective is still subject to significant controversy among people with ASD, ASD advocates, ASD researchers, and ASD-focused non-profit organistions.

The Causes of ASD

Spectrum disorder has no single known cause, but it is generally accepted to occur due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. These factors can influence early brain development and in turn lead to the onset of spectrum disorders. For instance, certain genetic mutations may make a child more susceptible to ASD. Other risk factors such as older parents, pregnancies spaced less than one year apart, and certain prenatal exposures may also contribute to an increased risk of ASD. 

ASD has a strong genetic basis, but the exact mechanism remain unknown. We still do not know if ASD can be explained more by rare mutations with major effects or by rare multi-gene interactions of common genetic variants. It is a complex field, where we need to take into account the possible interactions between multiple genes, epigenetic factors, and environmental factors. Epigenetic changes do not change the DNA sequencing, but are heritable and will influence gene expression.

Usually, ASD can not be traced to a single-gene mutation or to any single chromosome abnormality.

If an older child is diagnosed with ASD, 7% – 20% of subsequent children will get the same diagnosis. If an identical twin is diagnosed with ASD, the other twin will also be 36%-95% of the time, depending on which study you look at.

Symptoms of Spectrum Disorder

The symptoms of spectrum disorder can differ from one person to the other, but the most common signs include difficulty with communication, impaired social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and limited interests or activities. Other symptoms might include hyper-sensitivity to certain sounds or textures, difficulty understanding other people’s emotions, and intense preoccupations or routines. It’s important to note that these symptoms can range from mild to severe, affecting daily functioning differently for each individual. 


Diagnosis of ASD can be challenging because it is based on behavioral symptoms, and there are no medical tests for it. Instead, doctors and psychologists assess a child’s developmental history and behavior to make a diagnosis. This typically involves observing the child and talking with parents about the child’s behavior and development. Overall, the goal of this evaluation is to look for deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as repetitive patterns of behavior or interests.

Differences in brain activity

Technologies such as fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging are currently being used to help identify biological relevant phenotypes (observable traits) in brain scans. This could help give us a greater neurogenetic understanding of ASD. One part of the brain that is getting a lot of attention as of now is the fusiform face area, since lowered activity in this area is associated with impaired perception of people vs. objects.

Co-occuring condition

ASD frequently co-occurs with other conditions, such as ADHD, epilepsy, and intellectual disability. Disagreements persists about which aspects of an individual’s challenges that should be included in the ASD diagnosis and which ones that are more correctly attributed to another diagnosis.

Managing ASD

While there is currently no cure for ASD, early intervention and targeted therapies can significantly improve outcomes. These might include behavioral therapy, communication therapy, educational therapy, and family therapy. In some cases, medications may be prescribed to manage certain symptoms such as high energy levels, depression, or seizures.

In addition, school-based services and support are also critical to promote social and intellectual development and manage behavior. It’s also beneficial to maintain a consistent and structured environment for individuals with ASD. Understanding, patience, and accommodation from society at large is paramount in making those with ASD feel accepted and valued.