The Challenges of Autism

When Temple Grandin was two years old, she was diagnosed with brain damage; her parents were advised to institutionalize her. Instead, her mother arranged speech therapy and intensive developmental training. Now, more than 70 years later, she is a scientist with a PhD who advocates for humane treatment of livestock. 

Dr. Grandin is one of the first adults to publicly identify herself as having autism spectrum disorder. The CDC defines ASD as a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” Temple’s is a success story because she received timely interventions and opportunities, but ASD brings challenges to all autistic people and their families, no matter their resources.

Facts about Autism Spectrum Disorder

One in 54 children in the US are identified with ASD. The rates of diagnosed children have been rising over the last several years. It’s unclear if this is because practitioners and parents are becoming more aware of the disorder, or because ASD is becoming more common—or both. Boys are four times more likely to develop ASD. Fewer girls are diagnosed, but some think that girls simply may be better at masking their symptoms.

ASD appears by age 2 or 3, sometimes within a baby’s first 6–12 months. Young children with ASD often stall developmentally between 12 and 24 months, most notably in language skills and responsiveness. They may not answer to their name or follow objects that others point out. 

Primary care doctors can help confirm cause for concern. But it usually takes a specialist to evaluate and diagnose ASD, which occurs on a spectrum of less noticeable symptoms to severely challenged. Besides having language problems, children with ASD may:

  • avoid eye contact 
  • prefer being alone, exhibit little or no interest in others, or have trouble relating to others
  • fail to understand or recognize others’ feelings, or lack the ability to express their own feelings
  • dislike being touched or held
  • repeat words, or actions such as rocking, spinning or flapping arms 
  • cling to routine and have trouble with transitions or disruptions in schedules
  • exhibit sensitivity to tastes, smells and sounds, developing strong preferences and aversions 

Challenges for Children and Adults with ASD

Children with ASD often have marked differences from others in the way they communicate, behave and learn. These differences can cause problems with social interactions, which in turn can lead to problems at school, stress within their families and social isolation. They may become the target of unkind jokes and bullying. In a crowded classroom, teachers may struggle to accommodate their unique learning styles and needs. 

Unless they have exceptional abilities or encouragement, teens with ASD may not continue their education after high school. As they move into adulthood, they may have trouble getting and keeping a job; they may need to rely on family members for a place to live. Almost 40% of teens and adults with ASD spend limited or no time with friends.

It’s estimated that 2.21% of adults in the US have ASD. Not all were identified with the disorder as children. Milder forms of autism can escape detection. And since there is no established diagnostic test for adults, it is more difficult to diagnose ASD in them. 

“Not all children with autism show all the signs. Many children who don’t have autism show a few. That’s why professional evaluation is crucial.”

Challenges for Families of Autistic People

Families and caregivers of those on the autism spectrum experience their own trials. A child with ASD can be challenging—they may be restless; have trouble sleeping, eating or speaking; experience seizures; or have meltdowns born of frustration or overstimulation. 

Expectations for a “normal” life may need to be adjusted. It takes time to develop the patience to cope with ASD behaviors such as hours of watching the same video, endless jumping or twirling, or inexplicable fears. Therapies and interventions may replace playdates. Families can experience frustration and fatigue as they begin to educate themselves and others on ASD and their loved one’s needs.

Early intervention gives children with ASD a better chance to develop social and other skills. But it may be a struggle to schedule the necessary evaluations and to decide how to diagnose and treat co-occurring mental health disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and depression. Insurance may not cover some therapies; it can be stressful choosing the ones you can afford, or those right for your child. 

Wisdom for ASD Families 

Dealing with an autistic child is not easy. It may help to know what autism feels like to the autistic person. One woman describes it as having neural pathways that behave like “a frayed stereo speaker wire” that often plays the “music” of life with “static”—which is frustrating, confusing and sometimes painful. Then there are times when the wires connect, when the autistic person can receive and transmit without interference.

Having a family member with ASD requires adjustment but offers opportunities for understanding and joy. One mother whose autistic son took a shine to a Disney villain created opportunities for him to connect with his family through tailored activities, and—thanks to the flexibility of his teacher—with his schoolwork. He even had an online meeting with the actor who played the villain.

Children with autism often have unexpected gifts—artistic or mathematical gifts, or even, like Temple Grandin, gifts of compassion. Enlisting siblings, teachers and caregivers as understanding advocates can help autistic children and teens better function in the world, and help others develop empathy for those with autism.

Professional Evaluation of ASD Is Critical

Dr. Stephen Shore, an autism advocate on the spectrum, said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every autistic child develops in his or her own way. Some may need more help than others to navigate school and life. Studies show that early diagnosis and treatment improve outcomes for children with ASD. Interventions target individual needs and may include occupational and speech therapy, and training in language and social skills. Medication and diet control may complement interventions.

“Core features of autism must be present in early childhood but may not fully manifest until social demands exceed the person’s capacity to cope with them, and challenges may be masked by learned coping strategies.” 

Autism Society of America 

Less is known about effective treatment for older children and adults with ASD. Interventions for these age groups usually take the form of services that help them finish their education, find jobs and housing, and take care of themselves.

Professional evaluation is crucial to help autistic children reach their full potential. Our counselors at Best Day are ready to assist you with an initial assessment for autism. While our providers do not specialize in ASD, we offer compassionate treatment for the co-occurring disorders of ADHD, OCD, anxiety and depression. We will work to help your child receive all available resources to live a full and satisfying life.


Centers for Disease Control

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