The term autism was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911 to describe severe cases of schizophrenia. According to Bleuler, autistic thinking was driven by a rejection of reality, substituting the outside world with a hallucinatory fantasy. As new methods for studying developing children were explored, the idea that autistic thinking is characterized by unconscious symbolic life was eventually disproved. In fact, difficulty with symbolic play is one of the early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Today, ASD is considered a distinct developmental disorder characterized by repetitive behavior and social and communication impairments. While ASD shares many symptoms with other disabilities, children on the autism spectrum have unique needs that warrant careful attention from parents, teachers, and specialists. Let’s take an in-depth look at how ASD differs from other developmental disabilities.

A “Spectrum” Disorder

ASD is not a singular condition but rather a group of disabilities. Autistic disorder is perhaps the most well-defined ASD, but it’s joined by pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s syndrome. Diagnosed separately in years past, these conditions are now part of a “spectrum” disorder, meaning that, while similar, they cause a range of symptoms. Even among ASDs, it’s important to differentiate conditions.

Toddlers with ASD have trouble engaging in eye contact, symbolic play, or joint attention behaviors, such as following a teacher’s pointed finger to a picture on a page. It’s often not until later in life that they begin exhibiting other signs of ASD, such as resisting change or performing repetitive behaviors. Children and adults with ASD may also have difficulty:

  • Expressing their needs using typical words and gestures.
  • Focusing on activities that don’t interest them.
  • Giving and receiving affection in the form of physical touch.
  • Relating to or showing interest in others.
  • Understanding others’ feelings or conveying their own.

ASD, ADHD, or Both?

Many of the symptoms of ASD overlap with those of other developmental disabilities, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A child who has trouble completing their schoolwork, communicating with other students, and paying attention in class may be struggling with ASD, ADHD, or both. As many as 50% of individuals with ASD, preschoolers in particular, exhibit symptoms of ADHD. Both ASD and ADHD are characterized by difficulties with sleeping, attention, communication, and impulse control. Both are more common among boys than girls, and both can cause significant problems for children at school and in daily life.

Despite significant overlap, it wasn’t until the 2013 update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that a dual diagnosis of ADHD and ASD could be made. These updated diagnostic criteria allow for more accurate diagnoses and pave the way for future studies into how these two disabilities are connected. Still, differentiating ASD from ADHD or other developmental disabilities is no easier for diagnosticians and other special education professionals.

Diagnosing ASD

Children with ASD often have no distinguishing physical features that set them apart from other children. The difference lies in how they interact with the world around them. Being a “spectrum” disorder, ASD affects people to varying degrees, and their abilities can range from gifted to severely impaired. For example, some children with ASD can express themselves through conversation, whereas others are nonverbal.

Developmental Monitoring

No medical test can conclude whether or not a child has ASD. During a periodic checkup, a doctor or nurse will observe a child or ask their parent questions to ensure developmental milestones are being met—e.g., pointing to things, understanding the word “no,” and mimicking others. A missed milestone could be a sign of ASD or another developmental disability.

Developmental Screening

Children undergo a number of developmental and behavioral screenings throughout their young lives. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening children for ASD at the ages of 18 and 24 months. Taking a more in-depth look at child development, this screening consists of having parents complete a questionnaire about their child’s emotions and behavior.

Developmental Evaluation

Although they don’t provide a diagnosis, a developmental screening test can indicate if a child is at risk for ASD and if a formal developmental evaluation is warranted. During an evaluation, a trained professional will observe a child’s behavior, ask their parents a series of questions, and otherwise test to determine if special education or intervention services are warranted.

The Importance of Early Intervention

There is one thing that ASD has in common with other developmental disabilities: Early intervention can improve a child’s outcomes and alter the trajectory of their life. A child’s brain is still forming before the age of three, and the most profound impact can be made during this crucial time. Early interventions for autism can occur as early as two years of age, giving children the best chance to reach their full potential. In fact, some children respond so positively to early intervention that they’re no longer on the autism spectrum later in life. Even if their decrease in symptoms is less dramatic, however, many children who receive early intervention can go on to live full, happy lives.

Make a Difference in the Lives of Children With ASD

The University of Texas Permian Basin offers a number of online programs for educators and administrators wanting to make a difference in the lives of students with special needs. However, only our online Master of Arts in Special Education, Autism Spectrum Disorders track is designed with the specific goal of helping professionals enrich the lives of students with ASD.

As a UT Permian Basin graduate student, you’ll learn to assess and provide for the varying needs of students with ASD. Early signs of ASD, evidence-based interventions, and universally designed instruction are just some of the topics covered in this 36-credit-hour program. Entirely online, our program also provides the flexibility you need to earn your master’s degree and become a more well-rounded educator without having to leave your current teaching position.

Put yourself in the best position to make a difference in the lives of students with ASD. Apply to our online MA in special education, ASD track to learn how to better assess your students’ needs, whether or not they’re on the spectrum.