child's silhouette with autism spelled out in cartoonpuzzle pieces

The autism spectrum explained

Autism isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.

It’s better to think of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, as an umbrella. Under that umbrella are the many ways that ASD can manifest in different individuals.

Some children may avoid physical contact; others may enjoy it. Some of them may have intellectual disabilities, while others may be brilliant. But they all have some sort of social, communication or behavioral challenge.

“That’s the reason it’s called a spectrum. Not every child who has autism looks the same, and multiple factors go along with where you might be on that spectrum,” said Dr. Susan Caldecott-Johnson, who specializes in pediatric neurodevelopmental disabilities and pediatric rehabilitation.

There are many subtypes and associated conditions that make this condition unique to each individual.

Over time, our understanding of the autism spectrum has changed. Labels such as Asperger syndrome, also called Asperger’s, are no longer considered unique diagnoses, but rather are covered by the broad umbrella of ASD.

Autism and intellectual ability

young file with puzzle piecesA common misconception about autism is that it’s related to intellectual disability. In reality, the two don’t always go hand in hand.

“Intellectual disability and autism are two very different things. You can have autism along with any level of intellectual ability. They can have intellectual challenges or have a lower IQ, or they can be very, very bright,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said.

Because of the confusion between the two, children can sometimes be wrongly labeled as one or the other.

“There are many, many accomplished people on the spectrum. And there are plenty of people who have high functioning autism that are attending colleges all over the country. Those are the ones who don’t need a lot of support, but they may have some support ,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said.

Importance of diagnosis

Getting a complete evaluation from a qualified medical professional is the first step. After a child is diagnosed with ASD, they may be referred for therapy or other interventions that can help them socially and academically.

“Pursuing that definitive diagnosis is helpful, and it’s a path that needs to be gone down. Any child who has any sort of neurodevelopmental problem needs not only that specialist viewpoint and recommendations, but assistance of multiple different types. It’s a team,” Dr. Caldecott Johnson said.

Along with recommendations from a specialist, children with autism can get help at school, from therapists, from their pediatrician and, of course, from their parents.

“The parents’ role is to carry over their child’s therapy at home and to love that child for who they are.”

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale is a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Kids & Family