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Autism Spectrum Disorder

As a nurse, you will encounter people with all kinds of health concerns and developmental disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Autism is a complex developmental condition that primarily impacts a person’s ability to perceive the world and interact with others. Autism can lead to a wide range of challenges in behavior, social interaction, and communication.

The spectrum nature of ASD means that not every person with the disorder is the same. The symptoms and their severity can vary drastically from one individual to another. According to Autism Speaks, 1 in 36 children in the US were reported to have ASD in 2023. Up from 1 in 44 in the previous year, the statistics show an increase in the number of people affected by it.

The growing prevalence and variability in symptoms and severity make it crucial for you as a nurse to understand the disorder. Because nurses are often on the front lines of diagnosis, management, and patient education, learning more about ASD can help you provide more effective support to individuals and their families.

In this Fast CE For Less guide, we will cover essential facts about autism, the challenges it poses, and how it is diagnosed, treated, and managed.

An Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder and its Signs

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodivergent disorder that covers a wide range of intellectual abilities that are gifted to those with significant challenges. Some people with ASD may be excellent in various visual skills, art, math, and music, but may struggle with social interactions and verbal communication.

While the severity of signs and symptoms of ASD can vary drastically, there are a few signs that can help you determine whether someone suffers from it, including:

Social Communication and Interaction

People with ASD often display notable difficulties in social communication and interaction. These challenges include understanding and maintaining typical conversational responses, failure to initiate or respond to social interactions, and difficulties maintaining friendships. Misunderstandings in nonverbal communicative behaviors like eye contact, body language, and facial expressions are also common.

Repetitive Behaviors and Restricted Interests

Another hallmark of ASD is patterns of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. This might manifest as repetitive movements (like rocking or hand-flapping), excessively sticking to routines, or intense fixations on specific, often narrow, interests. These behaviors can significantly impact daily functioning and require strategies for management and integration into education or therapy programs.

Sensory Sensitivities

Many individuals with ASD experience abnormal sensory sensitivities, such as adverse reactions to specific sounds, lights, or textures. These sensory preferences or aversions can influence behaviors and choices in a substantial way, necessitating careful consideration in both educational settings and daily life accommodations.

Understanding these signs and symptoms can help nurses tailor their approach to each individual, enhancing communication and support strategies to better meet their needs and improve their quality of life.

Challenges with Communication: Eye Contact and Testing 

While this is not always the case, many people with autism often experience significant challenges with making eye contact. The inability to or the struggle to make eye contact can often be a key sign for an early diagnosis. A person with ASD might avoid making eye contact. In many cases, a person with autism might make unusually intense eye contact. Both can impact social interactions and communication.

The variance in eye contact for someone with ASD has more to do with discomfort, and it can fundamentally affect how the autistic person understands and interacts with others. In assessing eye contact, specialized eye-tracking tests can help diagnose and assess eye movement. These tests track and measure the movement of the eyes of a person with ASD. The tests can provide insights into how individuals with autism may perceive and process visual information. Nurses play a crucial role in observing these signs and can guide families on the need for such assessments.

Managing Visual Symptoms 

While not commonly discussed in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder, visual disturbances like floaters can occur and may affect individuals with ASD. Floaters are small spots that drift through one’s vision, typically harmless, but potentially distracting. For someone with sensory sensitivities, as often seen in autism, these visual disturbances can be more pronounced and disturbing.

Nurses can assist by educating families about managing these symptoms, potentially involving consultations with eye care professionals if floaters are frequent or severely impairing an individual with ASD. Providing this support is vital to make sure that people caring for a person with ASD do not overlook such symptoms while helping manage the condition.

Understanding the Spectrum Aspect of ASD: The Tests and Levels

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Understanding the severity of symptoms for individual cases of ASD can help professionals and their families address the health needs of the individual with ASD and implement tools to manage and treat autism. Expert health professionals can use various tests to identify the symptoms and their severity. Some of the ways to test the levels of ASD include:

Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)

The Autism diagnostic observation schedule (ADOS) is a structured assessment used to evaluate communication, social interaction, and play, or imaginative use of materials for individuals suspected of having autism. It consists of various tasks that the individual performs with an examiner, which are then scored to assess symptoms of ASD. The ADOS is highly regarded for its accuracy and thoroughness in assessing ASD across age groups and developmental levels.

Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R)

The Autism diagnostic interview-revised (ADI-R) is a comprehensive interview conducted with the parents of individuals being evaluated for autism. It focuses on three main areas: (1) restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped behaviors and interests, (2) reciprocal social interactions, and (3) language/communication. The interview provides a detailed history and profile of the individual’s behavior, which is crucial for a reliable diagnosis of ASD.

Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)

The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) helps differentiate children with autism from those with developmental delays who do not have autism. The rating scale measures behavior in areas such as relationships to people, imitation, emotional response, and body use. This scale is easy to administer and provides valuable information on the severity of the condition.

How to Treat and Manage Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is not a disease that can be cured. It is a neurodivergent disorder that can be treated and managed to improve the quality of life for an individual with ASD. Depending on where a person with autism is on the spectrum and the severity of their symptoms, various treatments can be used to help them enjoy a better life, including:

Behavioral Therapies

Behavioral therapies are a cornerstone of autism treatment, focusing on improving specific behaviors such as social skills, communication, and schooling. Techniques such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are widely used and involve structured teaching through reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors and reduce unwanted ones. Nurses can guide families in understanding and integrating these therapies into daily routines.


While no medication can cure ASD, certain drugs can help manage symptoms. Depending on the symptoms, doctors may prescribe antipsychotics to keep severe behavioral issues under control. They can also prescribe antidepressants to help people with ASD who also suffer from anxiety. Nurses should ensure that families are aware of possible side effects and the need for close monitoring by healthcare providers.

Support Services

Support for families and individuals with ASD is crucial. This can include parent training, social skills classes for older children and adults, and community integration activities. Nurses can play a key role by connecting families with local support groups, educational programs, and resources to help them navigate the challenges of ASD. Additionally, advocating for patient rights and appropriate educational settings is part of comprehensive care.

Understanding these approaches and how they integrate with overall management strategies allows you to provide informed, empathetic support to patients and their families, enhancing the quality of care for individuals with autism.

World Autism Awareness Day

The world recognizes April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day, a key event dedicated to increasing awareness about autism and promoting inclusion and support for those affected by autism. This day encourages the public and professionals alike to learn more about autism and to foster understanding in communities.

Nurses can use this opportunity to spread knowledge and advocate for patients with autism, emphasizing the importance of community support and accessible services. Engaging in this day’s activities can significantly enhance awareness and understanding of ASD within society.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is essential for nurses who are instrumental in diagnosing, supporting, and managing individuals with this condition. By being well-informed about the various aspects of ASD, including its symptoms, testing methods, and available treatments, nurses can offer more effective assistance to patients and their families.

Additionally, nurses play a vital role in advocating for adequate services and educating others about the complexities of autism. Ultimately, enhanced knowledge and proactive engagement can lead to better care, greater understanding, and improved quality of life for individuals with autism.

If you have not completed your nursing continuing education requirements, online nursing CEUs offered by Fast CE For Less can help. In addition to expanding your knowledge and skills in various specialty areas, courses offered by Fast CE For Less can help you fulfill your nurse CEU requirements while managing your busy schedule.

To access flexible and affordable nurse continuation education course bundles, visit www.fastceforless.com.

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