Identifying the Signs of Autism and
What do actors Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah have in common? Both were identified with a "mild form of Autism" as young children. Both successful, but considered quirky and struggled socially. So, what is the difference in just being quirky and an actual Autism diagnosis?
Recently I offered a workshop for parents and community members titled "Just Quirky or Autism?" The purpose was to raise awareness and to help in identifying the signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I believe that this is especially challenging yet needed for individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, now classified as Autism Spectrum Disorder-Level 1 (DSM-5, 2013) also known as "High-Functioning Autism". So many of these children and adults are misdiagnosed and misunderstood, impacting their academics, social lives and careers.
So, where do we begin? First, let’s consider the term “quirky”. Merriam-Webster defines quirky as "different from the ordinary in a way that causes curiosity or suspicion". Does this describe someone you know? Before deciding, let’s look closer at High-Functioning Autism and discuss the characteristics. For consistency, we will use the term Asperger's Syndrome for the rest of this article since it is a more familiar term. Let us discuss just three factors to consider in its identification:
1. Immaturity in managing emotions
Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty regulating their emotions and matching them appropriately to a situation. For example, their emotional response to a small situation may be very intense, such as tantruming when something falls on the floor or breaks. In girls, this may also present as separation anxiety when leaving a parent. Research reveals that those with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to be quite "black or white" emotionally or “all or nothing”.
2. Exceptional abilities in a preferred area
There may be a high interest in one area, such as trains, swimming or planets for those with Asperger’s Syndrome. This interest may monopolize their thoughts and conversation. However, although cognitively intact, these individuals may struggle with attention and learning new concepts. As adults, they may be encouraged to pursue their passion in some degree as a hobby or career.
3. Sensory challenges
Specific sounds, smells and tastes may be offensive to someone with Asperger's Syndrome. For example, they might avoid wearing certain clothes or eating certain foods because of the textures.
Another example is covering their ears in response to or anticipation of an unpleasant sound. This sound may not be noticeable or bothersome to others, which may make their behavior seem odd. We noticed this early on in our daughter. One day at age 18 months, we noticed that she was quite fussy while riding in the backseat of the car. After several trials, we realized that she was quite irritated by the clicking sound of the fingernail clippers that I was using in the front seat. Another early example of the differences in our daughter "Amazing Grace".
Research shows that most individuals with Asperger's Syndrome are identified during the early school years, as the social demands of life increase. However, many adults are now discovering the diagnosis for themselves. This is likely due to the increased visibility of Autism in the media, internet searches and/or suggestions from family and friends.
Are you considering a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome for your child? Are you an adult considering this diagnosis for yourself? Here are a few resources:
1. Autism Speaks: Asperger's Syndrome
2. Autism Speaks: Adults
References: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013); The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome (T. Attwood, 2015); autismspeaks.org; merriam-webster.com
Wondering what “elopement” and Autism have in common? Do individuals with Autism often secretly run away to get married? Alas, that is not the case.
The original definition of elope is to run away and not return to the place of origin. However, as defined by the National Institute of Elopement Prevention and Resolution (NIEPR), elopement refers to an individual with cognitive challenges or special needs who wanders, runs away from or otherwise leaves a caregiving facility or environment.
Most parents of Autism are all too familiar with elopement. In my observation, no matter where on the spectrum, children with Autism tend to stray from their caregivers; some only occasionally and others quite often. Case in point: our daughter “Amazing Grace”. She was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism at age 3 ½. However, we noticed this behavior in her early on, around age two. Whenever we went to the grocery store, she would somehow find her way to the produce section and to the broccoli. She would talk about the broccoli and touch it, becoming as excited as most children are about ice cream. At age 6 ½ and despite strategies and reminders, Grace continues to stray from the safety of her family from time to time. She usually wanders to get to a preferred item or activity when she has been told to wait, such as waiting to go to the produce section to see this week’s selection of broccoli.
A study in 2012 (conducted by Autism Speaks and the Interactive Autism Network) found that nearly half of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at some point attempt to wander or bolt from a safe place. Using parent surveys, the researchers studied over 1,100 children with ASD ages 4-11 years. They found that these children demonstrated much higher instances of wandering than their neuro-typical siblings.
So, what makes children with Autism wander from safety? Given the study in 2012, parenting style was not the culprit. Instead, the more a child was impacted by Autism the more instances of wandering were reported by the parent. From the parents surveyed, most remarked that their child wanders because they just like exploring and running. Others mentioned heading to a favorite place or escaping too much sensory stimulation as reasons.
Help for Families
As imagined, elopement causes stress and concern for parents and caregivers of those with Autism. One consideration in reducing elopement is to look at the function of the behavior. For example, if the child is wandering to escape an overly stimulating situation, they may benefit from training in self-advocacy. The child could be encouraged to use a specific gesture, word, picture card, etc. to request a break when experiencing sensory overload.
Other options to assist with elopement include:
Increased community awareness and education can help tremendously in the case of elopement and individuals with Autism. Let’s do what we can to keep our kids safe!
Have you ever wondered how you can help your child become a better reader? Is your young child highly interested in letters, sounds and words? My daughter was. At age 17 months, she could already identify all letters and sounds. However, she was delayed in her fine and gross motor skills and had just started walking independently. This is when my suspicion of an Autism diagnosis began.
Many children with High-Functioning Autism develop reading decoding skills early, referred to as being “hyperlexic”. It was initially identified by Norman E. Silberberg and Margaret C. Silberberg (1967), who defined hyperlexia as the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read, typically before the age of 5. My daughter began identifying sight words early on and was reading simple books by age 3 ½. However, she continues to struggle with making meaning from what she reads and responding to more open-ended questions about grade level text.
How can you support children who struggle with reading comprehension? There are certain strategies that work and are truly beneficial for all kids as they mature as readers. Here are a few:
Let’s support our children and help to prepare them to become life-long learners. Building good reading skills is one way to do that. Feel free to contact me for more information on this topic.
References: Think and Speak Successfully by C. Dunaway (2012). Photo: Lee Live-Photographer (www.ourdreamphotography.com).
Could an adult actually be diagnosed with Autism? With the increase in awareness, most individuals now are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at younger ages. However, that was not always the case. As a result, more and more adults are self-identifying behaviors and seeking information regarding an Autism diagnosis.
Behaviors typically related to Autism include: sensitivity to sensory input (touch, taste, smells), difficulty taking others’ perspective, having restricted interests, difficulty with changes to routine and challenges with conversational turn taking. Since some behaviors appear to overlap with other disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), some adults may have gone misdiagnosed or undiagnosed with Autism for decades. Another factor in late diagnosis is that girls are significantly less likely to be identified with ASD as compared to boys, instead being seen as “shy” or “introverted”.
There are also many strengths related to Autism, including: honesty, attention to detail, high skill level in specific areas and less impacted by peer pressure. These strengths, along with great long-term memory and visual thinking skills, make adults with Autism excellent candidates for jobs in computer programming, photography, drafting, animal care, etc.
Since there are no medical tests to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder, evaluations are typically conducted by psychologists or psychiatrists and consist of gathering systematic observations of the individual in a variety of settings. Input is also obtained from significant others, caregivers, friends, parents, etc. via questionnaires or checklists. However, the challenge is that most behavioral checklists used in assessment were designed for assessing children, not adults. Also, the parents of adults are often deceased or unable to provide quality information about early childhood behaviors– which is key to a comprehensive evaluation.
Fortunately, evaluation tools are slowly being created to address the need for assessing Autism in adults. For example, in 2015 the Adult Repetitive Behavior Questionnaire (RBQ-2A) was developed to measure the extent to which adults are affected by repetitive and restricted behaviors (a core symptom of Autism). Also, some experienced child psychiatrists, pediatric neurologists, etc. may be open to working with adults suspecting Autism or can at least be a good resource for information.
To learn more about Autism in adults, download the free tool kit provided by the Autism Speaks organization: https://www.autismspeaks.org/adult-tool-kit. Or, feel free to contact us for your free 30-minute consultation.
References: Dr. David Beversdorf, www.autismspeaks.org, July 2014. Dr. Temple Grandin, www.iidc.indiana.edu, November 1999. K. Yandell, www.spectrumnews.org, September 2015.
Do you have fond memories of cooking with your family as a child? Or, do you remember the special dishes that your parents would make for the holidays? One of my favorites was my grandma’s lemon cake and homemade frosting. Yum!
Wouldn’t it be awesome to create some of those same memories with your child? But maybe you’re thinking that you can’t because of their challenges related to an Autism diagnosis. Well, don’t let that stop you. Below is a list of just four of the benefits of cooking with your child with Autism. Happy cooking!
2. Fine Motor Skills Practice: Cutting, dicing, slicing, stirring and even pouring are all great ways to practice fine motor and self-help skills. For example, research shows that cooking provides the opportunity to use hand strength and eye-hand coordination (Colker, 2005).
3. Executive Functioning: Planning, attention and problem solving are just a few of the processes of executive functioning. These can be easily developed through cooking through tasks such as following a picture recipe, prepping ingredients, and monitoring food while it bakes in the oven.
4. Improve Variety of Food Choices: When kiddos are involved with meal prep, it helps to increase their interest in eating more of a variety of foods. My kiddo ate half of half of a blueberry waffle (pictured here), which for her is great! She has also begun drinking a few ounces of the fruit & veggie smoothies that we all make together in the mornings.
I hope that you are inspired to try cooking with your child with Autism. Check out these resources for more information: The Cookbook for Children with Special Needs, by Deborah French. The Picture Cookbook: No-Cook Recipes for the Special Chef, by Joyce Dassonville. Everybody Can Cook, by Cricket Azima. Brain Balance Achievement Centers www.brainbalancecenters.com/blog. www.friendshipcircle.org. www.difflearn.com. www.education.com Cooking with Children, Bullard, 12/2010. www.thekitchn.com,
J. Thompson, May 2017. Highlights magazine, www.highlights.com.
This month’s topic is perspective taking, more formally described as Theory of Mind (TOM). TOM is a core area of struggle for children and adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, research shows that those with Asperger's syndrome may be impacted with less intensity.
What is Theory of Mind (TOM)?
A definition of Theory of Mind is, “the ability to intuitively track what others know, think, and feel during personal interactions”. We use the information that we gather during these interactions to understand/monitor our own responses, make sense of other people’s behavior, and predict what people may do or say next. The foundations of Theory of Mind skills develop gradually from infancy and typically solidify by 6-7 years of age.
Challenges with TOM
Theory of Mind deficits may cause social difficulties: being sensitive to other
people’s feelings, reading the listener’s interest level in our conversation, anticipating
what others think of one’s own social behaviors, and understanding “unwritten” social
rules. These deficits may also cause academic challenges related to comprehension of
literature, understanding socially based themes in text, or interpreting directions given
by the teacher.
How Parents Can Help
1. Stress “thinking about others” at home. Discuss how our actions yield positive and/or negative consequences.
2. As situations occur, share your "thinking" with your child (ex: When you cleaned your space at the dinner table tonight, I felt proud of you!)
3. Help your child to deconstruct social rules by using books and social stories (ex: Social Rules for Kids by Susan Diamond and Social Stories by Carol Gray).
Jill Kuzma SLP Social & Emotional Skill Sharing Site (2008), www.jillkuzma.wordpress.com; The Applied Psychologist-Second Edition (1999), Chapter 11, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Open University Press, Buckingham/Philadelphia; Understanding Core Social Thinking Challenges: The ILAUGH Model, Michelle G. Winner, www.socialthinking.com.
ASD Definition, Characteristics, and other factors
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that affects each person in different ways.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Characteristics
The characteristics of ASD fall into three categories:
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
Considerations and Recommendations
Adapted from the American Psychiatric Association (2016) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
To be a person is to have a story to tell. — Isak Dinesen
Have you ever had "one of those years"? Where you can't wait for New Year's Eve and the next year to begin, but its only April? Well 2014 was that year for me. In January 2014 I was diagnosed with cancer. In March, my father suddenly passed away. Then in June, my daughter Grace was diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism. Talk about a triple whammy! But, by grace, faith, and the help of a supportive community, I was able to come through that tough year and now it is all apart of my story.
I am so honored to share excerpts from my story here with you. I strongly believe that sharing your story is therapeutic and may also benefit the life of another is ways you will never imagine.
In viewing our website and previous post, you are likely aware of how my "Autism Story" began. At age three and a half, my daughter Grace was diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism. For me, the diagnosis was a confirmation and brought relief as well as many unanswered questions. However, having worked with children on the Autism spectrum for many years as a speech therapist, I knew that Grace could now begin to receive the needed supports that would empower her to be her best.
Now Grace is six years old. We have had many ups and downs, like when we both cried at the first friend's birthday party that she attended. It was terribly over stimulating, yet I refused to leave thinking that things would get better. Well they didn't! But, I did learn what not to do the next time. Now, I am happy to say that Grace enjoys attending birthday parties, for the most part anyway, and now neither of us leaves in tears.
I have also enjoyed simply amazing moments with Grace. Such as riding the Sky Ride at Sea World every time we visit. So high above the water, Grace is simply in heaven. What a joy to see her face each time we enter the ride!
Are you ready to tell your story?
If so, please briefly discuss how your child was identified with Autism or some other related social challenge? How has this impacted your life and your family? Describe an "amazing moment" that you've shared with your child so far in your journey.
Or maybe you are a grandparent, aunt, or co-worker of a child or adult with Autism. Please share your story as well. How has Autism impacted your life for the better?
I look forward to reading about each of your wonderfully unique stories.
Please post your comments below and have an amazing day!
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Grace who loved water fountains, outer space, rainbows, and dancing to music from the 70s...
Grace is my now 6-year old daughter with High-Functioning Autism. When she was born, her grandfather named her "Amazing Grace". He has passed away now, but little did he know how simply amazing she would be!
Grace is the inspiration for Sanford Autism Consulting. After embracing her diagnosis and exploring services and resources in our community, I wanted to provide that same support to other parents who were on their own Autism journey.
Please join us on as we laugh, cry, learn, and most of all enjoy our journey with Grace. I hope that you will learn more about how to best support your child, friend, significant other and encourage them to be the best that they can be. Simply Amazing!
Crystal Sanford, M.Ed., M.A. CCC-SLP has practiced in the field of speech-language pathology since 1998. As a licensed clinician and fellow parent, Crystal's passion is supporting families of Autism and related social language challenges. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her husband and three children in San Diego, CA.