The Autism Spectrum
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an increasingly common diagnosis (affecting anywhere from 1 to 2 children per 500 to 1 per 100) in children involving neurological impairments in the processing of information, communication, and social interaction. Autism Spectrum Disorder, unlike OCD, is not classified as an anxiety disorder.
There is an ongoing debate about whether the prevalence of ASD is exploding in the population or whether it is simply being recognized more frequently. Symptoms of autism vary from the very mild to severe. More boys than girls are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, especially Asperger's syndrome, which is sometimes called “high-functioning autism,” but is, in fact, a distinct disorder. Because it does not involve significant developmental delays, Asperger's often goes undiagnosed until a child reaches adolescence or young adulthood.
Asperger's syndrome is considered part of the autism spectrum, but unlike classic autism it does not involve significant delays in language or cognitive development. It is marked by impairments in nonverbal interactions such as eye contact and facial expressions. Children with Asperger's have trouble making friends and exhibit an unusual preoccupation with one or more stereotypical interests (frequently quantitative or mechanical) and parts of objects.
An autistic child appears overloaded by sensory stimuli and frequently retreats into “a world of his own.” In addition to developmental delays, the most common area of difficulty for a child with autism is his interactions with others, including family, teachers, and peers. Eye contact is often a problem. There can be significant problems in speech and other cognitive milestones, and an absence of emotions and imaginative play. Frequently, an autistic child displays an intense focus on a particular subject, activity, or object.
What if My Child Has Autism and OCD?
As may be immediately apparent to you as the parent of a child with OCD, there are similarities between the core symptoms of OCD and autism. Chief among these are the affected child's repetitive behaviors and excessive need for order. Children with autism and OCD will frequently be seen lining up toys and other objects in their environment. The co-occurrence of these two disorders in children is not uncommon. In fact, it's unusual for someone with autism to not exhibit some OCD behaviors. What is more problematic is if a child who has been diagnosed with OCD exhibits some of the symptoms of the autism spectrum, but these go unrecognized and untreated.
Both of these disorders require serious attention. If you have an intuitive sense that your child's symptoms go beyond OCD to those more closely associated with autism, you should bring this concern to the attention of your doctor or mental health professional as early as possible. By doing so, you may be able to take advantage of many recent advances in the early detection of autism in infants and toddlers. Researchers have been able to identify autistic tendencies, such as avoidance of eye contact or the lack of a startle response to noises, in infants as young as six months old.
Early intervention with infants and toddlers with autism has been demonstrated to have a positive effect, in many cases enhancing a child's ability to sustain social interactions through targeted therapy encouraging eye contact, touch, and verbal development.
In 2007, the American Pediatric Association initiated new autism testing guidelines for infants and toddlers. These guidelines reflect the consensus in favor of the advantages of early testing and therapeutic intervention for autism. Pediatricians were instructed to test for signs of autism at well baby visits a minimum of two times before the child reaches the age of two.