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Understanding autism: 3 things you should know

Mother and child looking at photographs on digital camera together - Understanding autism

People with autism often struggle to read social cues.

Autism is a developmental disability that is not always well understood. This is, in part, because those who are on the autism spectrum may function at very different levels.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as, “the name for a group of developmental disorders. ASD includes a wide range … of symptoms, skills and levels of disability.”

According to the NIMH, boys are more likely than girls to develop autism. Having a sibling with autism and being born to older parents also are risk factors.

Difficulty with social cues

Dr. Justin Schoen, a Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist, said autism presents in two main ways, socially and cognitively.

“People with autism have difficulty reading social cues and with social interaction in general,” Schoen said.

Other symptoms of autism include:

  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors, like rocking in a chair
  • Not making eye contact
  • Getting upset by slight changes in routine

“The spectrum is massive,” Schoen said. “There are people on the spectrum leading independent, successful lives. But there are also those who require constant care.”

Savant syndrome

Some people who fall on the spectrum have special skills or talents. These people are known as savants, and the presence of their unique abilities is rare. These special skills may be in math, science, music, art or other fields.

“Some of the theory behind that is because they aren’t relying on the social cues that many of us are so reliant on, it frees up their minds to focus on other things,” Schoen said.

Treating autism

In terms of treating autism, much depends on where on the spectrum a person falls. Intervening early in children with autism can help them make strides and assimilate better in society as they develop.

“It’s also really important for the care team, family and anyone else involved in helping a person with autism, to be consistent,” Schoen said. “For people who already struggle to understand social cues and subtleties, it is really important for everyone working with them to be on the same page.”

If you are concerned about signs of autism in a child or a loved one, contact a primary care provider.

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