How common is autism?

Research conducted by the CDC (2014) reports the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder as 1:68. Males are four times more likely than females to be diagnosed.

What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Prior to 2013, autism spectrum disorders included three conditions that had similar core symptoms but differed in terms of how they are expressed and labeled. Those three disorders were:

  1. Autistic Disorder: used when an individual shows 6 or more of 12 symptoms across three main areas, communication, social interaction and restricted activity/interests
  2. Asperger’s Disorder: a spectrum disorder that affects social interaction, social communication, and behavior but typically does not affect the development of speech
  3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS: used to diagnose those who do not meet the full criteria for autism but display similar behaviors

The DSM 5, published in 2013, removed the three distinct spectrum disorders and replaced them with the term “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

How do I know if a person has autism?

Unfortunately, no medical test exists to show that an individual has autism. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be diagnosed by observing the person, understanding their developmental history, and assessing how they communicate and relate to others. A few of the behaviors that a diagnostician may look for include making eye contact with a person who is talking to them, showing interest in what other people are doing and engaging in play with others (if the individual is young). Difficulty in relating to people is a hallmark symptom of the autism spectrum (see “red flags” below).

What are the “red flags” of autism?

Currently, the criteria used to diagnose autism spectrum disorders (DSM-IV-TR; DSM 5) are designed for 3-year-olds. However, recent research has shown that certain behaviors in children younger than 3 may indicate a higher risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder. No single behavior or factor indicates a child may have autism but the presence of several symptoms could be cause for concern. Parents should watch for the following: Early Signs of Autism.

Who can diagnose autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder can be diagnosed by a medical doctor or a licensed clinical psychologist. If a parent is concerned about the communication and social development of their child, they may see their general pediatrician or family doctor first. Frequently, the family will then be referred to a specialist who has specific experience with autism and other developmental disorders. This may be a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist with experience in the area of autism.

To register with and receive services from the WV ATC a diagnostic evaluation must be provided by a medical doctor or clinical psychologist. (An evaluation from a school psychologist is not accepted because those professionals are determining educational eligibility and not a psychological disorder.)

What types of assessments will be conducted during the diagnosis?

There are several assessments that can be used to diagnose an autism spectrum disorder. Usually a diagnostician will conduct a structured observation, and may ask the individual to respond to several activities as they look for specific indicators. A structured interview also may be conducted with parents or guardians. Structured interviews provide the diagnostician with information about the individual’s past behavior and their behavior at home, school and in the community. A speech evaluation and/or psychological evaluation may be conducted during the diagnostic evaluation.

What should I do once an individual is diagnosed with autism?

Once an individual has been diagnosed it is important to begin intervention as early as possible. Early intervention usually focuses on intense skill building. Skills that are learned easily by typically developing persons can be difficult for someone with autism. For example, individuals with autism have difficulty understanding social cues and may need to be taught to pay attention to others, play with others and communicate with others. Many skills must be broken down into smaller components and taught systematically. Early intervention, preschool, school programs and behavioral health centers are available to provide intervention. In addition, in West Virginia , a family can contact the WVATC and receive services. The WVATC works closely with families, school system personnel and behavioral health centers to develop and implement intervention that is designed specifically for the individual with autism.