Autism and Special Needs

About Autism

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder marked by significant deficits in communication, social skills and cognitive impairment, which usually surfaces in children between the first 18 and 24 months of life. Autism is the fastest-growing disability.

Individuals who demonstrate varying degrees of the classic symptoms of Autism or who demonstrate some, but not all of the classic symptoms may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) separately defined Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Rett’s Syndrome. In May, 2013, the DSM-5 was published and categorized all of these under one term, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), differentiated based on three severity levels.

Although numbers vary slightly, approximately 1 out of 68 children is diagnosed on the autism spectrum -- a number that increases up to 17 percent each year. There is no known cause or cure of autism. While researchers work on learning more about this disorder, ACES’ is focused on helping individuals realize their full potential through treatment and support in the home, school and community.

What is Asperger's Syndrome and How is it Different than Autism?

The term Asperger's Syndrome refers to individuals within the autism spectrum who do not necessarily experience severe intellectual impairments but do face a range of social impairments.

The major distinction is that language developed normally up to the age of 3. Individuals with Asperger's retain normal or near-normal cognitive and communicative development and their verbal skills are usually relatively strong.

Those afflicted with Asperger's Syndrome display deficits in social interaction and unusual responses to their encompassing environment. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest.

The diagnosis of Asperger's has been eliminated in the 2013 fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and replaced by a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder on a severity scale.

Speech-Language Skills

Development of speech-language skills is different for every child. However, certain communication milestones are expected as children grow. If your child is reaching these milestones slowly, he or she may need speech therapy.

Speech-Language Milestones

4-6 months:
  • Demonstrates an interest in others
  • Responds to changes in tone of voice
  • Pays attention to music
  • Communication is not intentional
7-12 months:
  • Babbling begins (around 7 months)
  • Communication becomes intentional
  • Combines gestures with sounds and eye gaze
  • Uses certain sounds as if they were words
  • Imitates sounds
  • Understands common words
  • Listens when spoken to
13-18 months:
  • Uses 10-20 single words
  • One word may have different meanings in different contexts
  • Receptive vocabulary develops
18-24 months:
  • Two-word combinations begin
  • 24 months - vocabulary increases to around 200-250 words
  • Uses many different consonant sounds at the beginning of words
  • Points to a few body parts when asked
  • Follows simple commands and understands simple questions
2-3 years:
  • Three-word sentences develop
  • Grammatical structures emerge
  • Begins to ask “why?”
  • Speech is understood by familiar listeners most of the time
  • The child will have as many as 500 words by 2 ½ , and 1000 words by 3
  • Follows two-step commands (e.g. “Go to your room and get your shoes”)
3-4 years:
  • Uses long complex sentences and can hold conversations
  • Grammar becomes more complex
  • Answers simple ‘wh’ questions
4-5 years:
  • Pays attention to a short story and answers questions about it
  • Uses sentences that give lots of details
  • Tells stories that stick to a topic
  • Speech is understood by all listeners; may be some sound errors such as l, s, r, v, z, j, ch, sh, th

Other Special Needs


ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a relatively common developmental and behavioral disorder characterized by lack of impulse control, difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity. Individuals with ADHD are often distracted by sights and sounds in their environment, and have a tendency to daydream. Diagnosis occurs after a person has shown some or all of the symptoms on a consistent basis for at least six months.

Downs Syndrome

Downs Syndrome is caused by chromosomal abnormalities in which a critical portion of the number 21 chromosome is present in all, or some, of their cells, whereby, altering the course of development and causing characteristics associated with the syndrome. It is the most common occurring genetic condition. Among the most common traits of a person with Downs Syndrome are low muscle tone, flat facial profiles, an upward slant to the eyes, and an abnormal shape to the ear. Individuals with Downs Syndrome often receive developmental support in the form of occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Childhood disintegrative disorder is a condition in which children develop normally until age 3 or 4, but then demonstrate a severe loss of social, communication and other skills. Doctors sometimes confuse this disorder with late-onset autism. Both conditions involve normal development followed by significant loss of language, social, play and motor skills; however, there is a more dramatic loss of skills with childhood disintegrative disorder and a greater likelihood of mental retardation. In addition, childhood disintegrative disorder is far less common than autism.

Brain Injured

Approximately 2% of the United States population lives with disabilities resulting from a traumatic brain injury. The brain can receive several types of injuries depending on the type of force and the amount of force that impacts the head. The severity of brain injuries and the cause of brain injuries vary, therefore, appropriate treatment for individuals afflicted with brain injuries will vary and may change throughout their lifespan.


PKU (Phenylketonuria) is a genetic disorder that is characterized by an inability of the body to utilize the essential amino acid, phenylalanine. PKU is inherited through recessive genes in which both parents are carriers but display no symptoms of the condition. PKU is typically tested in newborns and is treatable. However, if left untreated, severe brain problems can occur in individuals with PKU, such as mental retardation and seizures. The goal of treatment is to maintain an appropriate blood level of phenylalanine.

Rett Syndrome

A relatively rare developmental disability, Rett syndrome affects 1 out of 10,000 to 15,000 females. After a period of normal development, between the ages of 6 months and 18 months, autism-like symptoms emerge. The very young female's mental and social development then regresses, where she no longer responds to parental or social figures. Moreover, with Rett Syndrome, affected females regularly stop talking, can't control their feet, and wring their hands. Fortunately, some problems associated with this condition - like coordination, movement, and speech problems - can be treated via physical, occupational and speech therapy. Scientists sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recently discovered that a mutation in the sequence of a single gene can cause Rett syndrome. This discovery may help doctors slow or stop the syndrome's current progress and may also lead to screening methods that should facilitate earlier and more efficient treatment.