Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is known for being a complicated neurological and developmental disorder that affects someone’s ability to interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. This disorder is being consistently researched, which means we are finding out more and more about ASD each day.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the public interest in ASD has increased, due to the prevalence of its symptoms in social media. Our goal is to clarify and educate on the current research and facts about ASD, in order to bridge the gap between patient curiosity and patient needs.
What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
ASD is a developmental disability that is related to differences in the brain. While we know there are some genetic links to autism, there is still a lot we don’t know about what causes autism. ASD is also known for being a “spectrum” disorder, meaning that no two people with ASD are exactly the same. Some people have more severe symptoms than others, and more commonly, each person with ASD has different capabilities than another person with ASD.
What Is Not Autism Spectrum Disorder?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the symptoms of ASD. Symptoms like being introverted, anti-social, having trouble with motor skills, being overstimulated, being “type A” or enjoying routine, being sensitive, having hobbies you spend a lot of time on, and getting frustrated easily, can be considered normal behavior or part of a different diagnosis when assessed properly.
How Do We Diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Diagnosing ASD can be a complex process. Since there is no medical test to prove that someone has ASD, psychologists must look at behavior patterns and developmental milestones in order to assist in forming a diagnosis. Factors like patient age, parenting styles, existing medical issues, and experience or training of the psychologist can all play a factor in putting together a diagnosis.
Psychologists utilize a diagnostic manual called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to help diagnose ASD. The DSM is used by healthcare professionals and psychologists as an authoritative guide to diagnose mental disorders. The DSM uses scientifically supported criteria in order to make an accurate diagnosis. It is important that when making a diagnosis, the psychologist utilizes the criteria within the DSM.
When making a diagnosis, the psychologist will take into account the patient’s history including but not limited to: medical history (potentially since birth), psychological history, questionnaires from friends or family, developmental milestones status, or other unique behaviors the patient feels are worth mentioning.
Outdated Terms and Diagnoses for Autism
- Asperger’s Syndrome: A more “mild” type of autism. A person with Asperger’s syndrome was considered to be very intelligent and able to live almost completely independently.
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder: Considered to be next to Asperger’s syndrome on the spectrum, a “moderate” form of autism.
- Autistic Disorder: Considered a “moderate” form of Autism after Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
- Child Disintegrative Disorder: Considered a rare and severe type of autism. Consists of children who lose many social skills, language ability, and mental skills. This disorder has also been linked to a seizure disorder.
- Kanner’s Syndrome: Previously known as Classic Autistic Disorder, involving challenges in communication, limited eye contact, and hypersensitivity to stimuli.
- Rett Syndrome: Consists of behaviors similar to autism, and was previously grouped among the spectrum disorders. However, it is no longer considered ASD.
What Are the Different Types of Autism?
With the assistance of psychological research and updated criteria through reputable resources, ASD has been recategorized for an easier and more accurate understanding of the “spectrum.” As seen below, ASD is now categorized into different levels of ASD severity.
- Level 1: The mildest or “high-functioning” level of the ASD spectrum, requiring some support. This level often includes those who have been previously diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Symptoms for level 1 on the ASD spectrum may include having a difficult time understanding social cues or struggling to form or maintain personal relationships.
- Level 2: The next level on the ASD spectrum after level 1. A moderate form of ASD, requiring substantial support. Symptoms for level 2 ASD may include having trouble with routine, verbal or nonverbal communication, or abnormal responses to social cues.
- Level 3: The next level of ASD after level 2. A severe form of ASD, requiring very substantial support. Symptoms for level 2 ASD may include severe challenges in social communication, inflexible behavior, unintelligible speech or few words, may be nonverbal, and struggling with routine.
What to Expect During an Evaluation
- First appointment: The psychologist will gather information about you or your child. This may include information about birth, childhood, previous mental health diagnoses, health problems, a chance to discuss why the patient is seeking a diagnosis, and what their expectations are.
- Testing: The psychologist will most likely schedule testing, the testing may differ from adults to children. Oftentimes testing will include a range or variety of IQ tests, puzzles with blocks or rings, elementary reading ability and comprehension tests, writing and spelling tests, math tests, and other tests such as memory tests to evaluate long-term, short-term, and working memory.
- At Mountain Vista, we typically complete an IQ test which helps us understand strengths and areas of needed support for learning new information verbally, nonverbally/visually, working memory, and processing speed. In addition, we have patients complete the ADOS-2, a test that has different modules for toddlers, children, teens, and adults. This is an interactive test that supports us in giving an accurate diagnosis.
- Questionnaires: The psychologist may issue questionnaires that may also evaluate for other diagnoses in addition to what the patient is there for, in order to get the most accurate diagnoses. The rating scales may include evaluating questions regarding ASD, personality, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and OCD. We want to be sure you get as many answers as possible to provide a comprehensive evaluation.
- Collateral information: In addition to information gathered from the client. For children and teens, we do comprehensive developmental interviews and have parents and teachers (if possible) complete rating scales. For adults, if it is possible, we do a developmental interview with a parent/guardian. If possible, we may also send rating scales to someone who identifies as knowing you well.
- Debrief: Once the psychologist has had time to evaluate the responses to the above information, calculate scores, and compare them to diagnosis criteria, a debrief session takes place. During this session, the psychologist will go over your results and discuss the findings. These findings may or may not result in a diagnosis, or result in additional diagnoses that the patient may have not thought of. The psychologist will then offer recommendations to the patient about things they can try, or resources they should seek in order to continue their care. The client will also be provided with a comprehensive written report of the results and recommendations!
Getting Evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorder
If you are concerned that you or your child may have Autism Spectrum Disorder, please reach out to Rocky Mountain Vista Psychology for more information about getting an evaluation from a trained professional.
Dr. Steffanie Stecker a licensed psychologist and the owner and clinical director of Mountain Vista Psychology, PLLC.
In addition, she is a board certified neurotherapist (BCN E5669) and board certified in QEEG (QEEG-D). Less than 100 people world wide are board certified in QEEG, which indicates competency in reading QEEGs and choosing neurofeedback protocols. Dr. Stecker is passionate about brain based effective therapy and creating a safe relationship for her clients to create change. She loves what she gets to do each day!