Autism is officially known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It is referred to variously as Autism, and Pervasive Developmental Delay. Classic autism describes those individuals with lower cognitive functioning and associated problem behaviours. The terms Asperger’s, Asperger Syndrome and Aspie have been used to describe those individuals with autism who have normal intelligence or above and generally manage to function in mainstream society. It is estimated that more than one in one hundred people meet the criteria for a diagnosis of ASD. This is certainly the case in Australia. This means nearly a quarter of a million Australians meet the criteria for ASD. These are children and adults. Boys are diagnosed more often but this is slowly changing as we understand that the way girls and women express ASD is different to boys/men.
Autism is one of the neurodevelopmental disorders which include autism, ADHD, language disorders, learning disorders, selective mutism to name a few. Autism is thus a lifetime developmental condition which affects the manner in which the individual relates to his/her environment and the way he/she interacts with other people.
Autistic traits are present in all people to a greater of lesser extent. Thus, the term “spectrum” provides a structure for understanding that the number, strength and range of difficulties an individual on the spectrum can live with. Autism acts to separate individuals diagnosed from the rest of the population by their perception and understanding of social and emotional interactions and the range of their restricted or repetitive behaviours. Research has demonstrated that early intervention is effective. The main areas of difficulties are in social communication and social interaction plus restricted and/or repetitive behaviours and interests.
Clinical Psychologists have an important role in the diagnosis and treatment of ASD. Increasingly it is acknowledged that the complexity of the condition requires diagnosis which considers a range of disciplines contributing to the diagnosis. In WA, this means an ASD diagnosis for children 0-12 years must be undertaken by a team of Clinical Psychologist/Psychologist, Speech Pathologist and Paediatrician/Psychiatrist. For adolescents and adults, the diagnosis needs to be undertaken by a Clinical Psychologist and Paediatrician/Psychiatrist. This team approach has been taken up by “The diagnostic process for children, adolescents and adults referred for assessment of autism spectrum disorder: A National Guideline” (released in May 2017).
Clinical Psychologists who have trained in assessment of ASD can provide a diagnosis. It is recommended that this be part of a tam assessment. Clinical Psychologists with an understanding of the specific issues and needs of individuals with ASD can provide appropriate therapies for individuals. This intervention will vary from a strong behavioural approach for those with Classic Autism to more traditional individual and group therapies for others with ASD.