Autism in America: Statistics, signs and symptoms

 We must all work together to better understand and help break the stigma surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorders.

We must all work together to better understand and help break the stigma surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Over the years, the prevalence of autism has been on the rise. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Of this population, males are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than females, with higher prevalence rates in children born to older parents. Among those diagnosed with ASD, there's a strong comorbidity with other mental health disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

While the rising rates of ASD have been widely believed to be attributed to vaccines in recent years, this theory has been debunked and the study that first made such claims has since been discredited. So just exactly why are autism rates growing over time? There are a variety of theories floating around, but one obvious factor could be the increasing statistics surrounding the age of parents over the years. According to statistics published from a recent Pew Research Center study, the average age of motherhood is 26 years of age. Back in 1970, this age was 21. There's also a higher rate of “geriatric pregnancies” as of late.

Causation factors aside, the rates of autism spectrum disorders are likely not going anywhere; demanding more education, understanding, and treatment options for Americans. But before we get into the variety of treatment options available, let's take a deeper look into ASD symptoms, and how these typically present in children today.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Symptoms and Challenges

The primary core symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder surround social challenges, communication challenges, and restricted—repetitive—behaviors. These symptoms begin during early childhood and may go unnoticed until ages 2-4. They also interfere with daily life functioning. While symptoms affect each person differently, those most associated with ASD can be broken down into three categories:

  • Communication Skills

  • Social Interactions

  • Behavioral Patterns

ASD Communication Challenges

It can be incredibly difficult for a person with ASD to communicate with others. Approximately 40 percent of those with ASD do not use speech at all. Of the remaining 60 percent, 25-30 percent will use some words by 12-18 months of age, but will then lose them. Others may not begin speaking until they are older. Those who are unable to communicate may be able to use some words, but they don't always make sense in sentence form. Others may repeat one word at a time to try to communicate. The verbal and non-verbal communication symptoms most commonly associated with ASD include:

  • Delayed speech or a lack of speech and language skills

  • Echolalia (saying words or phrases repetitively)

  • Mixing up pronouns such as “you” and “I”

  • Not cognizant of gestures such as pointing, waving, etc.

  • Answers questions with irrelevant responses

  • Inability to read facial expressions of others

  • Flat affect in tone of voice

  • Will not engage in play that incorporates pretending behavior (e.g. pretending to fly, or eat play food, etc.)

  • No understanding of things not meant to be literal, such as joking, sarcasm, etc.

  • Has difficulty making eye contact when interacting with others

ASD Social Interactions

Some of the more common symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders surround social skills. Those who have ASD often face social difficulties that make it difficult for them to function in life. These could be as minor as shyness, or as major as an inability to understand social cues and mores. The most common symptoms that relate to social functioning a person with ASD may face are:

  • Prefers to play alone (may not be interested in others whatsoever)

  • Will not respond to own name at 12 months of age

  • Goal-oriented in all interactions (only talking to someone in order to achieve a task, etc.)

  • Avoiding physical touch

  • Failure to share interests with others

  • Odd facial expressions

  • Inability to understand feelings of others or self

  • During times of distress, others are not a comfort

  • Difficulty understanding boundaries, and personal space of others

ASD Behavioral Patterns

It's quite common for a person with ASD to exhibit unusual behaviors and interests. These often present as restricted, or repetitive behavioral patterns such as:

  • Lining things up in a row

  • Doing things in a specific order

  • Being fascinated with parts of objects

  • An extreme or obsessive interest in specific topics

  • Minor changes can be very upsetting

  • A strong focus on organization

  • Must have a consistent schedule that doesn't change

  • Will stare at lights or objects that spin

  • Repetitive motions with objects (clicking a pen, turning things on and off, etc.)

  • Repetitive body movements (spinning in circles, rocking, etc.)

Additional Symptoms

Aside from the aforementioned symptoms, there are a variety of other types of issues an ASD sufferer may face. Such symptoms may or may not be due to comorbid disorders. These include:

  • Very active or hyper

  • Expresses unusual reactions toward things observed by 5 senses

  • Extremely fearful of harmless things, or no fear of dangerous things

  • Aggression, anger control issues, temper tantrums, etc.

  • Abnormal emotional reactions and moods

  • Impulsive

  • Abnormal eating and sleeping patterns

  • Causes self-harm

  • Difficulty concentrating

While these symptoms are all associated with autism spectrum disorders, not every person with an ASD will experience all of these symptoms, and the degree to which each symptom affects an individual can vary greatly from one person to the next. If you’re concerned that your child may have an autism spectrum disorder and are considering coming in for an assessment, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to contact us today and make your first move toward helping both your child and family adjust.