Dr JC Coetzee Clinical Psychologist in Ponsonby & Parnell, Auckland Book Sessions

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Clinical Psychologist, Auckland, Ponsonby & Parnell

What is Autism? What causes Autism? How is Autism treated?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by a range of challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviours. The term "spectrum" reflects the wide variation in strengths and challenges that individuals with autism can experience. ASD is typically diagnosed in early childhood, but its symptoms and severity can vary widely. 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can sometimes be challenging to identify in early childhood, and certain factors can mask or obscure its symptoms. Some common factors that may contribute to the masking of autism in childhood include:

Intellectual Abilities: Children with autism can have a wide range of intellectual abilities. Some may have average or above-average intelligence, which can mask challenges in other areas.

Language Development: While delayed or atypical language development is a common feature of autism, some individuals may develop language skills at a typical rate or even excel in certain language-related areas.

Social Masking: Some children with autism may develop strategies to mimic or imitate social behaviours, making it less apparent that they struggle with genuine social interactions. 

Adaptive Coping Mechanisms: Children with autism may develop adaptive coping mechanisms to navigate social situations. For example, they might learn specific scripts or routines to respond in social settings, even if they don't fully grasp the nuances of social interactions.

Hyper-focus on Interests: Children with autism may develop intense interests or hobbies that provide a sense of comfort and routine. While this intense focus can be a characteristic of autism, it may also lead to overlooking other social and communication challenges.

Masking in Girls: Autism is often diagnosed more frequently in boys than in girls. Girls with autism might exhibit different social behaviours that are less stereotypically associated with the disorder, making it less recognisable.

Mimicking Peers: Children with autism may observe and mimic the behaviours of their neurotypical peers, especially in structured or supervised environments. This imitation can mask social difficulties temporarily.

It's crucial to note that the masking of autism can lead to delayed diagnosis and intervention. Some individuals may only recognise the symptoms of Autism once they have reached adult hood. A comprehensive assessment of adult Autism may be indicated in these cases.

Key Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Social Challenges:
  • Difficulty with social interactions and relationships.

  • Challenges in understanding and responding to social cues, such as facial expressions or body language.

  • Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships.

Communication Difficulties:
  • Delayed or absent development of spoken language.

  • Challenges in using and understanding nonverbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions.

  • Repetitive or unusual speech patterns, including echolalia (repeating words or phrases).

Repetitive Behaviours:
  • Engaging in repetitive movements or activities, such as hand-flapping or rocking.

  • Insistence on sameness or routines and resistance to change.

  • Highly focused interests in specific topics.

Sensory Sensitivities:
  • Heightened sensitivity or indifference to sensory stimuli, such as lights, sounds, textures, or smells.

  • Unusual reactions to sensory input, such as covering ears in response to loud noises.

Strengths and Challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Individuals with autism often have unique strengths, such as a strong focus on details, exceptional memory, and expertise in specific areas of interest.

Challenges may include difficulties in understanding and expressing emotions, as well as managing transitions.

Autism Spectrum

The term "spectrum" acknowledges the wide range of abilities and characteristics that people with autism can exhibit. Some individuals may require significant support in daily living, while others may function well independently. As a result, the severity and combination of symptoms can vary widely.

Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder

The exact cause of autism is not known, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors is believed to contribute. There is no known cure for autism, but early intervention and appropriate support can significantly improve outcomes and quality of life for individuals with ASD.

Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder

It's important to approach each person with autism as an individual, recognising their unique strengths and challenges. The goal of interventions and support is to enhance their well-being and help them reach their full potential. Autism treatment typically involves a multidisciplinary approach tailored to the individual's specific needs and challenges. Here are common components of autism treatment:

Behavioural Therapies

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA): ABA is a widely used approach that focuses on increasing desired behaviours and reducing challenging behaviours through positive reinforcement.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals manage anxiety, social challenges, and sensory sensitivities by addressing thought patterns and behaviours.

Educational Interventions

Special Education Services: Tailored education plans, often provided in special education settings, help children with autism develop academic and social skills.

Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP outlines specific educational goals, services, and accommodations to support a child's learning.

Speech and Language Therapy: Many individuals with autism experience challenges in communication and language development. Speech therapy aims to improve verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

Occupational Therapy: Occupational therapists work on enhancing fine and gross motor skills, sensory processing, and daily living skills to improve an individual's independence.

Social Skills Training: This involves teaching individuals with autism social cues, appropriate social behaviours, and interpersonal skills to enhance their ability to interact with others.

Medications: Medications may be prescribed to manage specific symptoms associated with autism, such as anxiety, hyperactivity, or aggression. However, medication is not a primary treatment for the core symptoms of autism.

Parental Training and Support: Providing parents with strategies and tools to support their child's development at home is crucial. Parental involvement is often a key factor in the success of interventions.

Sensory Integration Therapy: Some individuals with autism have sensory processing challenges. Sensory integration therapy helps them better process and respond to sensory information.

Supportive Services: Access to supportive services, such as social services, vocational training, and community resources, can contribute to an individual's overall well-being.

Structured Environments: Creating structured and predictable environments helps individuals with autism thrive, as they often benefit from routines and clear expectations.

It's important to note that every individual with autism is unique, and the effectiveness of interventions can vary. A personalised approach that considers the individual's strengths, challenges, and preferences is key to providing effective support. Early intervention, starting as soon as autism is suspected, is widely recognized as beneficial for positive outcomes.