What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disability that is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and interaction across various contexts, problems with establishing, understanding, and maintaining relationships appropriate to developmental level, and the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

According to the DSM-5, autism spectrum disorder now encompasses disorders previously referred to as early infantile autism, childhood autism, Kanner’s autism, high-functioning autism, childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (APA, 2013). Within the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), individual characteristics are noted through the use of specifiers that describe the severity of symptomatology, which may vary by context and fluctuate over time. Specifiers provide clinicians with the opportunity to evaluate manifestations of characteristics that are unique to the individual with autism spectrum disorder.

  • Deficits in social communication and interaction can include difficulties demonstrating social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in conversational skills, difficulties with initiating or responding to social interaction, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors required for social interaction, and difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts.
  • Restricted, repetitive behaviors and interests can include stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements or use of objects, insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior or excessive resistance to change, highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus and a high or low reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment.
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period, however, some individuals will show symptoms at later stages of development contingent on symptom level of severity. The degree to how individual symptoms manifest can vary widely from one individual to another, hence the term ‘spectrum’ (APA, 2013).

It is estimated that 1 in 59 children in the United States have an ASD (CDC, 2014). ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, yet is about 4 times more likely to occur in boys than in girls. Studies in Asia, Europe, and North America have identified individuals with ASD with an average prevalence of between 1% and 2% (CDC, 2014).
To date, no specific causative variable has been identified which accounts for all incidents of ASD. Research has pointed to several possible factors, including biologic and genetic factors. While autism is known to be the result of neurological differences, the degree to which an individual with ASD is able to adapt and learn is also influenced by the quality of interaction provided by those who teach and care for them.
Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder are typically evident during early childhood development; therefore, early identification is paramount so that individuals with ASD can access effective instruction as early as possible. How individuals with autism are taught matters greatly. The degree to which ASD affects an individual’s level of functioning in the home, school and community will vary widely across individuals and stages of development. Family awareness and access to effective evidenced-based interventions, including early intervention, can greatly improve outcomes for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, including improved skills in social interactions, functional communication, and adaptive functioning.
In Pennsylvania, the provision of special education for students with ASD is determined when students meet the definition of autism as provided by Chapter 14/IDEIA regulations. Those regulations state, “Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction generally evident before 3 years of age, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (b) (4) of this section. A child who manifests the characteristics of “autism” after age 3 could be diagnosed as having “autism” if the criteria in paragraph © (l) (i) of this section are satisfied.”
All individuals with ASD are important members of the school community. People with ASD contribute to the school community and also benefit from meaningful participation within a community of learners.
Autism support services provided in the public school system address needs primarily in the areas of communication, social skills, and/or behaviors consistent with those of autism spectrum disorder. The individualized education program for these students must address needs as identified by the team which may include, as appropriate, the verbal and nonverbal communication needs of the child; social interaction skills and proficiencies; the child’s response to experiences and changes in the environment, daily routine, and schedules; and, the need for positive behavior supports or behavioral interventions.