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What is the Autism Spectrum?
The autism spectrum encompasses autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified. The common bond between these conditions is the symptoms that are displayed. The severity of the autism spectrum symptoms will vary from case to case but all will be apparent to some degree. They can be divided into three main groups.
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1) The Autism Spectrum and Problems with Social Skills
Children on the autism spectrum will have problems with social skills. These can be apparent from infancy when they may not respond to parents’ attempts to interact and make eye contact. As children grow, they may fail to respond to their name and will resist cuddling and physical contact. Many parents report it as though they are living in a world of their own and are unaware of other people and their feelings.
Children on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum also have problems with social skills and these will generally persist throughout life. They find it difficult to read body language and may act inappropriately as they do not pick up on people’s motivations or unspoken signals.
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2) The Autism Spectrum and Language and Communication Problems
Language and communication problems often merge with social skill problems and leave autistic children isolated from their peers. A child with autism may start talking later than other children or in some cases, may lose a previous acquired ability to speak. Language problems commonly seen include the following:
- Lack of eye contact when speaking to others
- Body language and speech do not match each other
- Speaks in strange tone or rhythm that may be monotonous or singsong
- Only speaks about special interests and obsessions and does not allow for two-way conversation
- Echolalia may be present where words or phrases said by others are repeated
- Some autistic people remain nonverbal throughout life but learn to communicate through signs and gestures
- Language is interpreted literally and sarcasm and figures of speech are not understood at all
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3) The Autism Spectrum and Repetitive Behaviors
Autism spectrum symptoms include behaviors that can be described as repetitive or ritualistic. Some are obvious while others may be more subtle and only noticed by parents and care givers. Autistic people function best within rigid routines and time tables and their repetitive behaviors may be a way of trying to bring order into their world. The behaviors commonly include the following:
- Lining up toys in a certain way and having an emotional meltdown if anyone touches them
- Repeatedly spinning the wheels of a toy car or similar actions
- Repetitive movements such as rocking, spinning or flapping
- Specific routines or rituals that border on obsessive compulsive behavior
- Emotional upset at any deviation from routine
- Obsessions with a special interest which often involves technology or transport
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Individual Combinations of Autism Spectrum Symptoms
Each person on the autism spectrum will display different levels of impairment. While the above groups of symptoms will be apparent in all cases of autism, some people may function better than others. It is important not to compare cases against each other but rather to assess a child’s progress against him or herself. Understanding autism spectrum symptoms is an important step to understanding the affected person and being able to find ways to help them.
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Children with Autism, a Parent's Guide, Michael D Powers, Woodbine House, 2000