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Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Development Disorders)

Autism Spectrum disorders (ASD) are more common in the pediatric population than are some better known disorders such as diabetes, spinal bifida, or Down syndrome. A recent study of a U.S. metropolitan area estimated that 3.4 of every 1,000 children 3-10 years old had autism. The earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the child can be helped through treatment interventions. Pediatricians, family physicians, daycare providers, teachers, and parents may initially dismiss signs of ASD, optimistically thinking the child is just a little slow and will “catch up.”

All children with ASD demonstrate deficits in 1) social interaction, 2) verbal and nonverbal communication, and 3) repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, they will often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. Each of these symptoms runs the gamut from mild to severe. They will present in each individual child differently. For instance, a child may have little trouble learning to read but exhibit extremely poor social interaction. Each child will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of ASD.

Children with ASD do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags further behind other children the same age. Some other children start off well enough. Oftentimes between 12 and 36 months old, the differences in the way they react to people and other unusual behaviors become apparent. Some parents report the change as being sudden, and that their children start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had previously acquired. In other cases, there is a plateau, or leveling, of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more noticeable.

Other Autism Spectrum Disorders include:
• Asperger syndrome (like autism, but with normal language development)
• Rett syndrome (very different from autism, and only occurs in females)
• Childhood disintegrative disorder (rare condition where a child learns skills, then loses them by age 10)
• Pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), also called atypical autism

ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors that can range from the very mild to the severe. The following possible indicators of ASD were identified on the Public Health Training Network Webcast, Autism Among Us.

Possible Indicators of Autism Spectrum Disorders:
• Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by 1 year of age
• Does not speak one word by 16 months
• Does not combine two words by 2 years
• Does not respond to name
• Loses language or social skills 

Some Other Indicators:
• Poor eye contact
• Doesn't seem to know how to play with toys
• Excessively lines up toys or other objects
• Is attached to one particular toy or object
• Doesn't smile
• At times seems to be hearing impaired


An early, intensive, appropriate treatment program will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Most programs will build on the interests of the child in a highly structured schedule of constructive activities. Visual aids are often helpful.

Treatment is most successful when it is geared toward the child's particular needs. An experienced specialist or team should design the program for the individual child. A variety of therapies are available including applied behavior analysis, medications, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language therapy.
Parents usually suspect that there is a developmental problem long before a diagnosis is made. Call your health care provider with any concerns about autism or if you think that your child is not developing normally.

Internet Resources:

Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet
The Asperger / Autism Network
Health and Human Services-Autism Information
MedLine Plus-Autism Information
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Autism Society
Easter Seals-Programs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Worcester, MA Local Resources

Autism Resource Central of Central Massachusetts
Seven Hills Foundation