Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD is a neurobiological disorder that interferes with the development of communication and social interaction skills. It is a lifelong disorder that may result in impaired development of life skills. ASD can make learning difficult and may lead to challenging behaviors. Usually, ASD becomes apparent by 3 years of age. Early development may or may not be typical. ASD is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and ASD does not differ between ethnic, racial and socioeconomic groups throughout the world. Currently, ASD is estimated to affect as many as one in 88 American children and affects four times as many males.

ASD includes the specific diagnosis of Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Diagnostic criteria for each of these are outlined in the DSM-IV under the category Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). Individuals with ASD may also have other disorders such as mental retardation, seizure disorders, sensory impairments, cerebral palsy and others.

What Causes ASD?

Although there is no known unique cause of autism, there is growing evidence that autism can be linked to a variety of factors. Brain damage prior to the age of three can produce the behaviors consistent with autism. Studies have shown that there are several genes linked to autism. If these are combined with other environmental or genetic factors, autism may occur. These factors may include trauma, viruses (e.g., rubella and cytolomegalovirus), infections (e.g., meningitis), toxins (pollutants), biochemical differences, and untreated metabolic disorders (e.g., PKU). No known factors in the psychological environment of a child have been shown to cause autism. Parents do not cause autism!

How is ASD Diagnosed?

Since there are no medical tests for autism, diagnosis must be determined by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or MD who has much experience with autism. A great deal of helpful information may be gained through assessment by a multidisciplinary team which may include a physician, psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, and behavior management specialist. Any complete assessment must include maximal parental involvement.

Some Behavioral Characteristics

There is no single adjective that can be used to describe every person with autism, because autism presents itself differently in each individual. People with autism can display a wide range of ability levels and behavioral characteristics. Not all people with autism will have all of these characteristics. Any of these may (or may not) be seen in varying degrees.

  • Delay in or lack of development of spoken language
  • Repetitive and/or unusual (creative) use of language
  • Decline or loss of language skills at young age
  • Difficulty initiating or maintaining conversations
  • Difficulty developing social relationships
  • Rigid insistence on following certain routines or schedules
  • Marked resistance to changes in the environment
  • High level of perseverance and endurance
  • Lack of spontaneous seeking to play with others
  • Lack of varied, spontaneous, or pretend play
  • Uneven development of skills – splinter skills
  • Unusual patterns of sleeping, eating and toileting
  • Marked impairment in understanding nonverbal communication
  • Lack of fear of real dangers /or intense unusual fears
  • Honest and sincere in relationships
  • May or may not be cuddly and affectionate
  • Intense preoccupation with specific topics, objects, or activities
  • Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
  • Markedly high or low activity levels
  • May be exceptionally artistic or creative
  • Unusual repetitive body movements, such as hand-flapping, rocking, spinning etc.
  • Under – or over – sensitivity to sounds, light, touch, smell, taste, pain, movement or other sensory input


Various methods of treatment have been developed, but no single treatment is effective in all cases. Although autism has no known cure, appropriate early intervention based on the unique needs and abilities of the individual is of prime importance. At any age, good educational and therapeutic exposure can enhance the ability of the person with autism to be a contributing member of their families and communities. In order for any therapy technique to work, it must be used consistently and persistently. It takes time, but it is possible to greatly improve the prognosis. People with autism can hold full-time jobs and pay taxes.

Some therapies or treatment methods that may be successful include:

  • Speech / language therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Sensory integration therapy
  • Structured Teaching methods such as TEACCH (Treatment and Education for Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children)
  • PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System
  • Applied Behavioral Analysis –( ABA; including Lovaas methods)
  • Medications – pharmacological treatment
  • Nutritional and/or vitamin therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Hippotherapy / Therapeutic horseback riding
  • Pivotal Response Training
  • Relationship Development Instruction – RDI
  • Physical therapy
  • Assistive Technology

Some of the information included on these pages is controversial, and may not have the backing of the scientific community. Inclusion of a treatment method on this page in no way implies recommendation by the New Mexico Autism Society. Individuals are strongly encouraged to get more information before deciding any course of treatment.