Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Young men's version of this guide
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Perhaps you know someone at school or have a sibling or relative who has a diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum. These diagnoses include autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger’s, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). More than 1 in 500 kids in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), so it’s common to know someone with this diagnosis. This guide was created to answer commonly asked questions about Autism and help you understand some of the behaviors and ways to communicate with teens who have an ASD.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological (brain) disorder that most often shows up during the first three years of life and affects how people develop. People diagnosed with Autism can be affected in different ways; but the main characteristics of Autism in teens are limited social awareness, difficulty communicating effectively with others, and several really intense interests and/or repetitive behaviors.

What are the types of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)?

There are 3 different types of ASDs:

  • Autism (Autistic Disorder)
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

People with Autistic Disorder are more severely affected than those with Asperger’s or PDD.

Facts about Autism

  • Autism is not contagious
  • Boys are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls
  • Behavior/symptoms usually appear by the time a person is 3 years old
  • Some differences may be seen during the first year of life
  • Anyone – no matter their race, religion, or background – can have an ASD
  • Social problems, speech, and behaviors can range from mild to severe
  • People with the same diagnosis can behave very differently from one another

What are the symptoms of Autism?

A person with autism may have one or more of the following symptoms:

Social problems:

  • Lack of interest in interacting with others
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Having a hard time making friends

Speech or communication problems:

  • Having trouble expressing themselves with language, or not speaking at all
  • Repeating words or phrases back to the person they are talking to, or reciting whole parts of movies or books or TV shows (like a script)
  • Saying inappropriate things at times
  • Not being able to use or read body language, gestures, or facial expressions

Behavior problems:

  • Doing the same behavior or body movement over and over again (flapping their hands, jumping up and down)
  • Being super focused on something
  • Becoming upset if their daily routine is changed
  • Have really intense interests (such as learning everything about a certain topic or only wanting to play withone toy or watch one movie)

Other problems:

  • They may not like being touched
  • They may become easily annoyed to very upset by certain noises
  • They may look at things in an unusual way

How is autism diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there are no lab tests (such as a blood test) that can diagnose Autism. Most often a parent/guardian or someone close to a very young child notices some of the signs. If the child’s parent/guardian or health care provider is concerned, the child will likely be referred for an evaluation by a specialist.
A developmental specialist (such as a neurologist, developmental behavioral pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist) will make the diagnosis. Other health care providers specializing in caring for children and teens with developmental disorders including behavioral therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists will do tests to determine whether or not a child or teen needs special services. Diagnosis by standardized screening by the age of 2 is ideal, however many children are not diagnosed until they are older.

How does Autism affect a teen?

Since Autism limits a person’s ability to communicate, autistic teens have trouble fitting in and making friends. Because they may have unusual behaviors and poor social skills they may be teased and left out of social activities. Sometimes they really have no interest in other kids and would rather be alone, but other times they wish they could make friends and just don’t know how. This can make them feel lonely.

What causes Autism?

The cause of Autism is still unknown. There’s been a lot of research that suggests that Autism may be caused in part by a genetic disorder (a type of condition that runs in families). Research studies have also looked at changes in brain structure and chemicals within the brain as possible factors. Studies have shown that the vaccines (shots) do not cause Autism.

How can Autism be treated?

There are many different treatments for Autism: behavioral, educational, and medical. It is important to note that people with Autism often have other associated conditions, such as intellectual disability (~75% cases), which will require specialized management. The following are the therapies that have proven to be the most effective:

  • Behavioral Therapy:Behavioral therapy is designed to teach motor, thinking, and social skills. It’s also useful in reducing or getting rid of negative behaviors.
  • Special Education Programs:These programs provide very organized support and focus on helping someone with Autism develop social, speech, language, self-care, and job skills.
  • Medication/Mental Health:Medication is sometimes prescribed to help some symptoms of Autism. Mental health professionals often help families find the right treatment based on a person’s specific needs.

Can Autism be prevented?

Unfortunately, this is something that researchers don’t know right now. However, with the right treatment that includes social, speech and language, motor, and cognitive therapies, a person with Autism can learn skills that help them contribute more effectively in the community.

How should I act around a teen with Autism?

  • Be yourself. It’s always nice to be kind to others who have a disability or who might have a hard time making friends.
  • Be patient. It may be frustrating when your friend, sibling, or family member with Autism doesn’t pick up on social cues. Try to remember that Autism affects a person’s social awareness. They may say inappropriate things because they don’t have the same kind of “filter” or social instincts that other teens may have.
  • Set limits when necessary. It may be necessary to be direct from time to time by saying something such as, “I can’t hang out with you right now because I have plans, but I plan to see you later on Tuesday.”
  • Get advice from a parent, teacher, or another adult. It’s helpful to get tips about communicating with someone with Autism from a person who has experience.

How can I help teens with Autism?

There may be a way to volunteer and become involved with helping teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in your school or in your community. If you’re interested, see if there’s a program for students with special needs/disabilities in your school, and ask if you can help. You may even be able to earn classroom credit for volunteering. There may also be volunteer opportunities in your community, and help is almost always needed. These types of programs usually match teens like you with a special needs student.

By getting involved with your peers who have special needs, you can learn a great deal about yourself and make a lasting impression on another teen’s life. Some teens who have worked with special needs youth have such a rewarding experience that they decide to major in special education, communication disorders, or a related area in college so that they can work with Autistic children as a career.