Autism Spectrum Disorders
The Autism Spectrum (ASD) is an umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that includes Autism, Asperger’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. The common features of these disorders include difficulties in the area of verbal and non-verbal communication and social interactions and reciprocity, as well as the presence of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests that are present from early on in life.
Clinicians and researchers make distinctions between autism and Asperger’s Syndrome on the basis of the presence or absence of delays in the development of language such as when a child spoke their first words or made their first 2-3 word phrases (there is no language delay in Asperger’s). In addition to normal language development, to be considered as having Asperger’s a child must also show average to above average intelligence. The term Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD; or PDD-NOS for “not otherwise specified”) is used to describe children who show features of autism or Asperger’s but do not show enough symptoms to meet diagnostic criteria.
Here are some examples of behaviors that are characteristic across each of the domains of functioning:
Language and Communication
There is a tendency to use speech as a means of getting needs met rather than for chatting, difficulty with maintaining a social interchange, a lack of pointing at objects in the distance, and difficulty playing imaginative games with peers
Individuals with ASD do not tend to use nonverbal methods such as eye gaze, facial expression, body posture or gestures to interact. There is a lack of interest in children of the same age, they do not seek to share enjoyment or experiences with others, they do not exhibit social or emotional reciprocity, and they have difficulty changing their behavior in response to the social situation (e.g. whispering in the library or movie theatre).
Repetitive Behaviors and Restricted Interests
There is a tendency to be bothered by minor changes in routine, to engage in stereotyped mannerisms such as hand or finger flapping, and to show persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.
In addition to the symptoms outlined in the diagnostic criteria, many individuals with ASD report that they experience sensory issues such as a difficulty with certain sounds that are not bothersome to others, or difficulty with certain textures or lights, as well as a tendency to be less sensitive to heat, cold or pain. These sensory issues often have a big impact on children’s ability to learn from their environment.
The goal of this line of research is to characterize the brain processes (specifically those related to sensory processing and attention) in individuals with ASD. The information that we collect could be useful to further understand the causes of developmental disorders, leading to better diagnoses and therapies to improve the lives of those affected by such disorders.