What is Autism?
by Rosie Portera, MS, CCC-SLP

Autism is a complex brain-based disability. We are all born with the ability to easily learn basic skills that help us survive and learn. These are skills like walking and talking, but also include our ability to be curious and open to learning. It’s said that no two people with autism are the same. Consequently, autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder. There are 3 processes in the brain that are affected in a person with autism. Each of these areas can impact learning by different degrees.

The first is called Central Coherence Theory. This is our ability to learn new things by building on the things we already know. We do this by categorizing and associating new information to help us more easily learn new things. We see it in toddlers when they first identify a dog. A dog is a dog, but they may also call a cow a dog and a horse a dog. They have generalized the four legs of a dog to all animals that have four legs. After some correction, the child begins to see the different characteristics of each animal and learns their names. Central Coherence skills are also important when we set goals. The goal may be large, but we are able to break it down into manageable steps.

The next brain-based skill is Executive Functioning. This is our ability to organize, concentrate and complete tasks, and recognize mistakes and fix them. It also supports time management, problem solving, and emotional regulation. Executive Functioning is always on keeping us aware of the things going on around, like a door opening, whispering in the back of the room, and alerting us to danger. We all fall somewhere along the continuum of poor to excellent executive functioning skills. How often do you lose your keys?

The last brain-based skill that is different in individuals with ASD is a neurological process called Theory of Mind. This is our ability to understand that you have different thoughts and feelings than others AND that you can influence others’ thought and feelings by changing your behavior. This is an extremely complex brain function that relies heavily on non-verbal communication, situational cues, and the ability to take another person’s perspective. Theory of Mind skills are necessary for us to understand literature, get along with others, make friends, and maintain relationships. It’s generally the aspect of autism that presents the most challenges.

So, what is autism? Autism is a pervasive neuro-developmental condition which effects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. People with autism may have significant challenges academically, functionally, and socially. Autism is a spectrum condition that that affects 1 in every 59 people in the United States. Identifying autism early can dramatically change the trajectory of the disorder. It’s devastating to hear that your child isn’t developing as expected. Well-meaning family, friends, and even your pediatrician will say things like, “She’s not even two yet, she’ll catch up” and “He’s not talking because you baby him too much” or “Let’s just wait and see where he is developmentally in 6 months”. Many parents or caregivers share that they knew something wasn’t right, but hesitate to get their child screened because they want to believe what they are told by the people they trust. What are the early signs for Autism Spectrum Disorder? The newest research is helping us identify children at risk for ASD as early as 18 months of age. The signs can be very subtle at first, but because of the brain-based perceptual deficits associated with autism, as the child gets older, their learning gaps may increase and challenging behaviors begin to get in the way of routine family activities and the ability to absorb new information.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive an autism-specific screening at 18 and 24 months of age in addition to general developmental screenings. The screening that most pediatricians administer is called the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised with Follow up (M-CHAT-R/F). This screening tool is a parent questionnaire. It’s also available free online of families of children between the ages of 16 and 30 months at M-CHAT.org. Failing the screening does not necessarily mean your child has autism. It means further testing is recommended. Another amazing resource for families that want to learn more about the very early signs of autism is AutismNavigator.com. Their course, called “About Autism in Toddlers”, offers deeper insights by comparing side-by-side videos of children showing early “Red Flags” and toddlers of the same age that are developing typically. Their First Words Project also offers a free online screener for children between 9 and 18 months of age. Autism sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. The earlier a child is identified and given solid interventions, the better their developmental outcomes. FAU CARD can assist families by providing autism screenings, local resources, trainings, technical assistance, and evidence-based interventions.

Here are a few of the “Red Flags” for autism (For a more extensive list, google 16 Gestures by 16):
Social Communication:
Limited use of gestures such as giving, waving, pointing, or nodding their head
Delayed speech or no social babbling/chatting

Social Interaction:
Does not respond when someone calls their name
Does not seek attention to look at things by pointing

Repetitive Behaviors & Restricted Interests:
Develops rituals such as lining objects up or repeating things over and over
Unusual posturing of hands, fingers, or body

Rosie Portera is a Clinical Specialist for Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities.

FAU CARD is a community-based program providing assistance and supports to people with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities, their families, the professionals serving them and the community. All services are free. FAU CARD served Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River & Okeechobee Counties. For more information contact FAU CARD at 561-297-2055 or email: card@fau.edu. To find the CARD that serves your Florida County contact: 1.800.9.AUTISM