What Are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

The term, Autism Spectrum Disorders, (ASD or autism) refers to a group of pervasive developmental disorders that typically emerge before the age of 3.  People with ASD tend to have social-communication deficits, including responding inappropriately during conversations, not recognizing nonverbal expressions and body language, and difficulty starting and sustaining friendships that are age appropriate.  Individuals with autism commonly have problems with dependence on routines, inappropriate responses to changes in the environment, and struggles with transitions.  They also display some aspects of repetitive or restrictive behavior.  These behaviors can consist of self-stimulatory behaviors that are derived from sensory issues, constant repetition of TV shows, movies, or other scripts, intense focus on unsuitable things, or challenging behaviors that can cause self-injury.  Individuals with ASD also have frequently experience secondary deficits such as intellectual disability, motor weaknesses, sleep disturbance, and gastrointestinal problems.  Conversely, people with ASD can display impressive skills in memory tasks, artistic expression, technology, and other interesting fields.

Individuals with ASD fall along a continuum or a spectrum based on the severity of their autistic symptoms.  There are three levels of ASD which are determined by the amount of support the individual requires during everyday functioning.  The symptoms of autism must be present during childhood although they may not be noticeable until increasing social demands make them apparent.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), current prevalence estimates place ASD diagnoses rates at approximately 1 in 88 individuals.  For boys, the rate is 1 in 54 and for girls it is 1 in 252; these rates represent a ten-fold increase in the last thirty year.  Despite what some researchers and celebrities might suggest, there is no known cause or cure for autism spectrum disorders.  Recent statistical analyses and epidemiological queries have drawn attention to potential factors in the development of autism in some populations; however, parents and educators should remain cautious until actual evidence for causation is uncovered.  In particular, research suggests that genetics appear to play a role in the emergence of autism spectrum disorders, but other variables are likely responsible as well.  Moreover, our focus, as educators, is to help individuals with autism spectrum disorders achieve their greatest level of independence and their optimal quality of life, instead of focusing on the origin of the disorder.

Individuals with ASD can lead accomplished, autonomous lives in many cases.  Excellent, individualized, research-supported instruction that starts at a young age and continues throughout the formative years can help some people with ASD fully acclimate to society, obtain a competitive-wage job, and live independently.  Other persons with ASD who acquire fewer skills at a slower rate will need significant support throughout the duration of their lives and will likely not live on their own.  The AHRC NYC Education Department recognizes the fundamental importance of an appropriate education that targets a person’s specific needs while building on their unique strengths.  We aim to serve all individuals with autism, regardless of their support needs, as they advance toward adulthood.