Understanding Autism

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

So it's worth educating yourself about this disorder. Whether you're helping yourself or helping someone you know, you are helping when you know more.

Common Terms


Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD: because no two cases of autism are the same, the disorder is often described as occurring "on a spectrum" where symptoms range from mild to severe. Individuals with ASD will have difficulty with three areas: communication, social interactions and repetitive or restricted behavior.

Person-First Language: For years, individuals with autism (or any disability) were referred to as being autistic (or disabled). But this terminology makes someone feel as if they are defined by their disability. It is more correct to say that someone "has autism."

Diagnostic Categories: types of ASD

Diagnostic Category: Autistic Disorder

Characteristics: Significant impairment in communication and socialization; Restricted interests; Stereotypic behaviors (rocking, spinning, hand flapping); Characteristics appear prior to age 3

Diagnostic Category: Asperger Syndrome

Characteristics: Less severe impairment in socialization and communication; Typical language development at normal age (or earlier); Typically normal self-help skills and average/above-average IQ

Diagnostic Category: Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Characteristics: Marked impairment in communication and socialization; Restricted interests; Stereotypic behaviors; Full criteria not met for autism and/or onset after age 3

Understanding the Characteristics

The main characteristics include:

  • Difficulty with Communication: both verbal (spoken language) and nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expressions, body language)
  • Difficulty socializing with others: sharing and understanding their emotions and the emotions of others, holding a conversation, understanding how others think and feel
  • Repetitive behaviors and/or restricted interests: repeating words or actions, rigidly following routines, playing in a repetitive manner, intensely focusing on one area of interest
  • Unusual responses to sensory stimuli: hypersensitivity to light or tactile stimuli (the feel of clothing or texture of different foods)

Assessment and Diagnosis

Added Dr. Jacquie Wynn, director of Nationwide Children's Hospital Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, "For families, the main thing is to not be afraid of assessment. They're scared to ask because it feels overwhelming. But it's important for families to talk openly and seek professionals' advice, because getting an assessment can't hurt. It can only get them to more help."

If you have concerns about your child's development, check with your pediatrician or family doctor first.

If the doctor is not comfortable in conducting an assessment and diagnosing autism, ask for a referral to a professional who can. Organizations where you can find such professionals include the Autism Center at Nationwide Children's Hospital or Ohio State University's Nisonger Center. Assessment wait time can be three to nine months, but these organizations are working hard to reduce that.

Parents can seek funding support for their child's assessment through private insurance, although less than 50 percent of insurance policies cover ASD. Through the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps, parents can obtain an assessment for their child at no cost. Call 800-755-4769 to learn how to access assessment services.

Educational Identification

Parents can contact their local school district to request the MFE after a child's third birthday.

Children are not required to have a diagnosis of autism for a parent to request the MFE. The school, however, is responsible for identifying all kids who require special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Programs and Services

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): Uses therapies to reinforce wanted behaviors and minimize unwanted behaviors

Developmental Approaches: Combines the ABA principles with knowledge of child development

Play-based Approaches: Emphasizes social and emotional development as the foundation for learning

Alternative or biomedical approaches: Dietary (eliminate or minimizes proteins like gluten and casein); Medication (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any drugs specifically for the treatment of autism, but some health-care providers will use drugs to treat symptoms).

School-based Services

Because autism spectrum disorders can vary so much from one child to another, different approaches can prove effective for different children. Any parent should seek an educational program that offers a comprehensive approach, addressing their child's academic, social, communication, behavioral and sensory needs.

School districts are required by law to provide a "free, appropriate public education" to all children. If a parent does not believe their school district's program is meeting their child's need, they can request the Ohio Department of Education's Autism Scholarship.

This program provides parents up to $20,000 of reimbursement per year to obtain an alternate program for their child as long as they use service providers approved by ODE. The child must have an educational identification of autism through the district to be eligible for the autism scholarship reimbursement.

According to the ODE, more than 1,600 students received these reimbursements in the 2009-2010 school year. When it began in 2003-04, only 70 did.

Additional Services & Support

County Board of Developmental Disabilities can provide early intervention, early childhood programs, school programs, service coordination, access to Medicaid funding for services, if eligible, and other support services. Call 877-464-7633 to obtain the number for your county program.

County Board of Mental Health (877-275-6364) licenses private mental health providers who may provide medication management and individual or group counseling for co-occurring conditions that can be common with autism. Contact the private agency to learn what services they provide.

Family and Children First agencies are public agencies located in every county which can also help. You can visit www.fcf.ohio.gov or check the chart below for your county's agency phone number:

Franklin: Early Childhood Resource Network (ages 0-3) 614-543-9000


Fairfield: Family and Children First (0-21) 740-681-4712

Licking: Family and Children First (0-21) 740-349-1633

Madison: Family and Children First (0-21) 740-852-0339

Pickaway: Family and Children First (0-21) 740-989-9642

Union: Family and Children First (0-21) 937-642-8990

Other Resources

Autism Society of Ohio:

Central Ohio Chapter of the Autism Society: an affiliate of ASO, this group of parents and professionals offers monthly meetings for parent education and support and advocates for people with autism locally. They are an excellent source of help. Call 614-284-6323 or go to autism-centralohio.com.

The Ohio Department of Education's Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI): a comprehensive information resource on autism. Among the Center's services is a library with a catalog that can be searched online. You can then order books or DVDs that will be shipped to you, free of charge, with a free return tag for return after 21 days. OCALI is located at 470 Glenmont Rd. in Clintonville. Call them toll-free at 866-886-2254 or go to ocali.org.

The OCALI Conference: a nationally known event for professionals and families involved in autism research and treatment. And each year, on the night before the conference opens, a free OCALI Expo is held for the public. This year it takes place on Nov. 16 at the Columbus Convention Center. Visit conference.ocali.org or call 614-410-0321 for more information.

Donna Owens is the family and adult services administrator for the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI).

Other sources of information for this Go-To Guide: The Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Nationwide Children's Hospital, National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic.