St. Rita’s health focus: Know the signs of autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, a pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder. People experience mild to very severe symptoms which need to be carefully diagnosed and provided effective treatments that fit their individual needs.

A child can receive a developmental screening by their physician as young as 9 months and should be screened at all well-child visits up to 30 months. This a short screening that the physician observes interactions, behaviors and asks basic questions of the parent or child (if old enough) to review developmental concerns. If there are concerns, then a suggested comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is the second step to determine an ASD diagnosis.

This thorough review may include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents. It may also include a hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, neurological testing and other medical testing.

In many cases, the physician may refer the child and family to an ASD specialist for further assessment and diagnosis. Specialists who can do this type of evaluation include developmental pediatricians, child neurologists, child psychologists or child psychiatrists.

There are many different treatments available, such as medications, behavior and communication therapies and family support and education which need to be tailored to fit the needs of the person being served.

For adults with ASD, the evaluation is similar, except sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish autism from psychiatric disorders. Adults are provided additional self-screenings to assist with diagnosis ASD. A promising newer screening is called the RAADS-14 questionnaire. It is a self-screening questionnaire that helps distinguish social anxiety and over-stimulation, which are two are the features of ASD.

Some behaviors that may indicate further evaluation for ASD is:

• Does not socially interact well with others, including close family members.

• Does not communicate well with others.

• Demonstrates repetitive behaviors.

• Is preoccupied, usually with lights, moving objects or parts of objects.

• Does not like noise.

• Has rituals.

• Requires routine.

If you or a loved one has concerns about ASD, talk with your doctors. They will listen to your concerns and help you sort through the best treatment options for you. They might refer you to a specialized professional to provide a comprehensive evaluation with recommendations for follow-up needs.

If you want to find out more information about ASD, including resources, the “Autism Speaks” website ( is available to provide a wealth of information, education and advocacy for you and your family.

Susan Hawk is Chief of Clinical Integration-Behavioral Health at Mercy Health-St. Rita’s.

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