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Autism is not an illness; it is a developmental disorder that affects one in fifty-nine individuals. The key characteristics of autism include difficulties with communication, language and social interaction, as well as fixations with routine and specific topics. People with autism typically show symptoms as an infant; however, the disorder will stay with them for their lifetime. Early identification is vital to provide the best developmental support for autistic children. However, there are different types of autism in adults, which may be milder and take more time to identify. Understanding autism can be extremely confusing, especially with recent changes in how it is diagnosed and defined. To dispel this confusion, we will take a look at the autism spectrum, the original five forms of autism, and how they are classified today.

What is autism?

Autism disorders fall on a spectrum; autism is not a one-size-fits-all disorder. Although autism disorders share many overlapping symptoms, including developmental delays and problems with socializing and communicating, individuals who fall on the spectrum may experience autism to varying degrees. Before 2013, the five different forms of autism as defined by The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders included:
  1. Autistic Disorder
  2. Asperger Syndrome
  3. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  4. Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)
  5. Rett Syndrome
However, in May 2013 the 5th edition of the Diagnostic Manual was published, defining one autism spectrum disorder and folding autistic sub-types into it. In turn, four different kinds of autism – autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome (AS) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), including Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), – now fall under the blanket term autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Despite these changes, the different kinds of autism are still commonly discussed.

Autism Spectrum Types

Autistic Disorder

Autistic disorder is a developmental disorder that influences how people behave, understand their surroundings and interact with others. It is a lifelong disorder which cannot be cured. However, if your child has autism, you can create a sensory room for them to help them develop life skills in an interactive and calming environment. Sensory products, like bubble walls and sensory mirrors, are fantastic stimulating features to include in sensory rooms, which can be installed in business and residential settings.

Autistic people may struggle with language, especially tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm. They can also find elements of socialization challenging, including feeling empathy and reading social cues. Those with autism may struggle to make friends, and often find social situations overwhelming. Another characteristic of autistic disorder is adapting repetitive and solid routines, and finding it distressing if these routines are unpredictably disrupted. Sensory overload, which can trigger autism meltdowns, is another common feature of autistic disorder. Autistic people may be over-sensitive, or under-sensitive, to certain stimuli, and can struggle with competing environmental factors. Triggering stimuli can include loud noises, crowded spaces, and itchy clothing.

Asperger Syndrome

Individuals with Asperger syndrome are typically highly intelligent and highly functioning; as such, it is sometimes described as ‘little professor syndrome’. Those with Asperger syndrome usually have no issues with spoken development; they sometimes develop an advanced vocabulary for their age and don’t tend to suffer from delayed speech. Another common characteristic of Asperger syndrome is having an intense interest in one or two specific topic areas. However, those with Asperger syndrome often struggle with social interaction and integration. They can find it challenging to understand the social cues of others. Such difficulties become more apparent with age when they are expected to have fully developed social skills. Sensory processing can also be a problem for individuals with Asperger syndrome. They may find certain environmental factors triggering and unbearable, such as bright lights or itchy clothes tags.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

PPD-NOS describes individuals who display autistic symptoms but do not clearly fit into the criteria of a specific form of autism. As such, PPD-NOS is known as ‘atypical’ autism. Those with PPD-NOS typically have milder autistic symptoms and find it easier to cope with developmental challenges in comparison with those with more severe symptoms. Symptoms can include difficulty interacting, lack of social empathy, lack of play skills, struggles with change, over-sensitivity to specific surroundings, repetitive behaviors and struggles with communication. Both occupational therapy and speech therapy can help individuals with PPD-NOS.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Also known as Heller’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) is a rare and regressive disorder, which typically shows in children at the age of three or four. CDD has been absorbed under the ASD classification as well. Most children who previously would have been diagnosed with CDD fall into the low-functioning range of ASD. Children with CDD will experience a sudden reversal in developmental areas over a short few months, including language, socialization, motor skills and cognition. This is extremely distressing and frightening for children and parents. Some children will experience serious regression in only some areas of development. For example, a child may lose their language skills but not their ability to walk. For some, skills that are lost can be redeveloped through therapy.

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is not classified as an ASD. Children with Rett syndrome are no longer automatically considered part of the autism spectrum. Instead, they have to meet the new diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Rett syndrome almost exclusively impacts girls, and usually becomes evident at about six months old, although this can vary from child to child. Girls with Rett syndrome have severe autism symptoms which may include delayed speech, repetitive hand movements, struggles with social interaction and difficulties walking. Further characteristics of Rett syndrome, which develop with age, include irregular breathing, seizures and muscle weakness. Although there is no cure for Rett syndrome, treatments such as speech therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy can help. These therapies may manage symptoms, prevent complications and improve quality of life Although autistic disorders share core characteristics, the experiences and developmental challenges that autistic individuals face vary drastically from person to person. With changes to autism diagnosis, and the introduction of autism spectrum disorder, the unique and varied experiences of autistic people are being recognized. As such, the effectiveness of therapies will differ from child to child. Sensory rooms are an excellent way to help autistic children relax, stay calm and develop life skills in an interactive environment. At Experia USA, we have a specialized team happy to help you explore a variety of sensory solutions to best meet the needs of autistic children. Please get in touch with any questions, and explore our collection of market-leading sensory products.

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