What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that is characterised by certain traits and difficulties. A person with ASD will primarily have difficult in relating to the world around them. The word ‘spectrum’ in ASD means that each person diagnosed with ASD may experience a range of difficulties with varying levels of impact on their lives.
Some of the main areas of difficulty a person diagnosed with ASD may experience are social communication, social interaction, restricted or repetitive behaviour and interests and sensory problems. Not all people with ASD will experience cognitive difficulties but this can be a feature of ASD.
How is Asperger’s different from Autism?
Many people will have likely heard of the words ‘Asperger’s’ and ‘Autism’ and may be confused about these terms or the introduction of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Prior to the introduction of the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (a book which outlines classifications and criteria for all mental health disorders) two separate disorders existed: Asperger’s and Autism. The characteristic difference between the two disorders was level of functioning. People diagnosed with Asperger’s were considered to be higher functioning in their day-to-day life than someone diagnosed with Autism.
When reviewing the diagnostic categories in preparation for the overview of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove these separate disorder classifications and to introduce the broad diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now, when ASD is diagnosed the diagnosis must be accompanied by a severity rating indicated by levels that describe the level of difficulty that the person experiences in each area addressed by the diagnostic criteria.
Does my child have ASD?
The first step towards getting a diagnosis of ASD is to recognise that your child may be having difficulties in any or all of the areas that are commonly affected by ASD. It can be helpful for you to talk with other care providers to your children such as teachers or day care providers, family members and friends as they may be able to provide additional information to you about your child’s behaviour that you may not have witnessed.
The next step is usually making an appointment with GP and letting them know your concerns. It can be helpful to record some of your concerns so that when you meet with you GP you are easily able to recall all of the points that you would like to discuss. Your GP will then likely make a referral based on your information and their assessment. This referral may be to a psychologist or a paediatrician, child and adolescent psychiatrist or neurologist.
Some states differ in what they require for a formal diagnosis of ASD. A formal diagnosis means that you will have access to support and benefits that will help with treatment and intervention. Your child may also receive further help at school. In QLD, a paediatrician, child and adolescent psychiatrist or a neurologist are the only people who can provide a formal diagnosis. However, a psychologist, speech pathologist or occupation therapist’s assessment is often requested to assist in the diagnostic process.
Is financial assistance available?
Once you have gone through the diagnostic process and been given a formal diagnosis there is some financial assistance available to support any further treatment required. The funding is granted by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and is referred to as ‘FaHCSIA’ funding.
The first step in accessing FaHCSIA funding is contacting an Autism Advisor who will help you to assess your eligibility for the funding, determine what funding you are entitled to within your circumstances, and access this funding.
For more information on accessing FaHCSIA funding it is best to contact Autism QLD who will link you in with an Autism Advisor.
Can a psychologist help with ASD?
What can psychological intervention do to help manage some of the difficulties someone diagnosed with ASD may experience?
Psychologists with experience in treating ASD have a great ability to help manage some of the problems encountered by people with ASD and their families.
Some of the main concerns that people diagnosed with ASD might face are difficulty recognising and regulating their own emotions. The world can be a confusing and at times scary place for someone diagnosed with ASD as they do not encounter their environment in the same way that someone who is not living with ASD would. This unpredictable nature of the world and at times limited understanding of their environment can cause someone with ASD to experience overwhelming emotions. Through psychological intervention the person with ASD is taught to recognise and understand their own emotions and to employ a range of strategies to assist in deescalating their emotional reaction to environmental stimuli.
Another area in which psychologists can be particularly helpful is social skills. One of the primary areas of concern for people diagnosed with ASD is often their ability to understand and practice appropriate social skills. This lack of ability to use appropriate social skills can lead to difficulties interacting with others. Psychologists can use particular strategies and skills training to develop a person’s social skills to alleviate some of the difficulties they may face at home, school and other areas of life.
A diagnosis of ASD can at times cause great disruption to family life, and support during this time is often beneficial. A psychologist who has experience in working with people who have a diagnosis of ASD and their families will be able to provide practical information on how to best manage the challenges that arise in living with and caring for someone with ASD.
Why focus on abilities not disability?
“The pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential”— Faith Jegede
It has recently been estimated that around 1 in 100 people meet the diagnostic criteria for ASD. That means that there are a lot of people living with this disorder!
The important thing to remember when thinking about ASD is that although it often presents with a unique and at times challenging set of difficulties it is not always about disability. All people diagnosed with ASD have their own set of strengths alongside their challenges, and it is important that we recognise and highlight these abilities while providing support through the difficulties.
At its core, ASD is a different way of experiencing and being in the world. This way is not wrong, but it is different, and with the appropriate support people diagnosed with ASD have great potential to live wonderful lives.
APA. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
FaHCSIA – Helping Children with Autism Package. (2016) Retrieved from www.autism.net.au