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What is autism spectrum disorder? 

Between our 90 standalone day schools and 90-plus In-District Classroom partnerships across 17 states, SESI serves nearly 8,000 special education students every year—many of whom have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). With ASD diagnoses increasing—a 2020 report from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) estimated that 1 in 54 young children have ASD—many autism-related questions arise. In this article, we’ll cover some common questions about autism spectrum disorder and how SESI supports students with ASD. 

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disease, generally diagnosed during childhood, that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others. ASD often leads to social interaction and communication challenges as well as limited and repetitive behavior patterns. Autism spectrum disorder used to be known as autism; however, ASD covers several conditions within the overall autism spectrum, including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. There is currently no cure for autism, but intensive, early treatment can dramatically reduce symptoms. 

Signs and symptoms 

Some parents notice autism symptoms in their child as early as infancy. Other children may appear to develop normally before suddenly changing behaviors or losing the language skills they already learned. These signs are usually noticeable by the age of 2. 

Autism spectrum disorder is unique in each child, both in behavior and severity. Some display signs through learning difficulties but otherwise have normal social skills. Others show high levels of intelligence but may not be able to function socially. 

Here are some signs and symptoms to watch for, though these may not necessarily lead to a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder: 

  • Repetitive movements (rocking, spinning, etc.) 
  • Activities that could cause self-harm
  • Specific routines or rituals that, when altered slightly, cause distress
  • Coordination problems or strange movement patterns (walking on toes, etc.) 
  • Stiff or exaggerated body language 
  • Fascination by details of an object without understanding the actual function of it 
  • Light, sound, or touch sensitivity, though possibly indifferent to pain or temperature 
  • Limited or no engagement in play 
  • Very specific food preferences; refusal of foods with certain textures 
  • Failure to respond to name 
  • Resistance to physical contact 
  • Preference to playing alone 
  • Limited to no eye contact and limited facial expression 
  • Lack of or delayed speech 
  • Inability to begin a conversation or keep one going 
  • Abnormal speech tone or rhythm; may use a song-like voice or robot-like speech 
  • Verbatim words or phrase repetition without an understanding of proper usage 
  • Failure to understand simple questions or directions 
  • Unawareness of others’ feelings; hesitancy to share their own emotions or feelings 
  • Inappropriate passive, aggressive, or disruptive social interactions 
  • Difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, body postures, or tone of voice 

Because ASD is unique in each child, many of these signs and symptoms may not be present. But if some of these autism characteristics are detected, seek a medical evaluation. The earlier that autism spectrum disorder is detected, the sooner the child can receive the therapy and support they need to live normal or near-normal lives, depending on the severity. 

ASD diagnosis 

If parents or guardians notice anything unusual about their child’s behavior or social interactions, the first step is to contact the child’s pediatrician. If the doctor also notices signs of autism, an evaluation by an autism spectrum disorder specialist (pediatric neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, or psychiatrist) would be the next step. This evaluation might include: 

  • Testing of hearing, speech, developmental level, language, and behavior 
  • Observing the child during social interactions and communications as well as communicating with them 
  • Asking the parent about behavior and developmental changes 
  • Genetic testing for any of the previously mentioned disorders 

Unfortunately, autism spectrum disorder often presents a wide variety of symptoms, making a diagnosis challenging. There are no specific tests to identify ASD, which is why a thorough evaluation of the child is often necessary. 

Treatments and therapies 

No cure exists for autism spectrum disorder. And because of each child’s unique symptoms, treatment varies. Rather than seek to “fix” the symptoms, ASD treatment involves maximizing the child’s functional abilities by reducing the symptoms. Through early intervention as young as preschool age, children can learn important behavioral, functional, communication, and social skills that are critical for their lives ahead. 

Treatments and therapies for ASD are available both at home and within a school environment, and options often include: 

  • Behavioral and communication therapies: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is considered a very effective treatment for social, behavioral, and language challenges caused by autism spectrum disorder. 
  • Family therapies: Learning how to best interact with a child diagnosed with ASD is critical to maintaining a happy family life. Parents and other family members can participate in therapy designed to show adults the best way to play and interact with their children. 
  • Educational therapies: Because many children with ASD respond well to structured programs, they tend to achieve success with educational therapies that involve a team of specialists and activities that work on specific skills. 
  • Medication: No drug can cure ASD, but some medications can help control the symptoms—such as hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and anxiety. 

Symptoms of ASD sometimes become milder as children get older, and many people with ASD go on to live typical lives. However, others will require continued services and support as they age, depending on the severity of their symptoms. For most people with autism spectrum disorder, it is a lifelong condition. 

Tips for parents of children with ASD 

  • Every moment counts. If you notice any autism symptoms, schedule an appointment with the pediatrician. Early intervention and therapy are vital to long-term success. 
  • Stay on schedule. Children with ASD thrive more with set schedules or routines. Try to stick to regular mealtimes, school activities, therapy, and bedtime. If you must break your schedule, prepare your child ahead of time. 
  • Reward good behavior. Positive reinforcement works wonders with children with ASD. Go out of your way to reward appropriate behaviors that are encouraged with a token of recognition. 
  • Communicate without speaking. If your child’s communication skills are an issue, you may need to expand your repertoire. Your body language, facial expressions, and gestures are all effective ways to communicate. 
  • Make fun a priority. Therapy and intervention are exhausting for a child. Be sure to emphasize fun throughout your day, whether that’s through games, activities, or play. 
  • Have a safe space. All children, with or without ASD, need time and space to relax and decompress. Find an area in your home to create a private space that allows your child to feel safe. 

How We Can Help?

Because ASD presents differently in every child, SESI believes that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. Our approaches are individualized to meet each student’s needs and prepare them for life beyond the classroom. 

Our Functional Communication Support model helps students with significant ASD and developmental delays as well as those with no developed form of communication. Through an individualized academic and behavioral support program, SESI’s experienced educators work closely with students to improve their fine motor, social, and life skills. 

For those with mild to moderate ASD, including behavioral challenges, our Intensive Behavioral Needs model assesses students to determine their language and learning needs. Using data-based interventions and district-aligned curricula, SESI’s schools and In-District Classrooms provide students with structured support and instruction to help improve critical skills. 

SESI is here to help support your students. Both school districts and parents trust SESI schools and programs due to our small class sizes, high staff-to-student ratios, and dedicated teachers, therapists, and other staff committed to each student’s success by implementing proven learning models, academic rigor, and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) frameworks. 

Let’s get started. Visit https://sesischools.com/programs/special-education/ to learn more.