Children with atypical autism usually display milder symptoms than their peers on the spectrum. But because they still struggle with some of the similar challenges as other autistic children, including communication difficulties and issues with processing sensory information, they may benefit from the same therapies and support.
Continue reading to find out more about atypical autism and how ABA therapy can be used to help children with the condition.
What Is Atypical Autism?
Atypical autism is one of the official autism diagnoses that were used before the introduction of the term autism spectrum disorder. The clinical name for atypical autism is Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified or PDD-NOS. Other terms to describe atypical autism include autistic tendencies, autistic traits, and a subthreshold diagnosis.
The term atypical autism was first used in 1994 in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the textbook reference that medical professionals use to identify and diagnose mental disorders.
The manual classified atypical autism as a subgroup of the autism diagnosis. The term was used to describe anyone who didn’t fit into the Pervasive Developmental Disorders categories—autistic disorder or severe autism, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Rett’s syndrome—due to atypical symptoms, late onset age, or both.
In terms of severity, atypical autism was placed between Asperger syndrome and typical childhood disintegrative disorder autism. It was considered to be a mild form of autism that didn’t necessarily require treatment or therapeutic intervention.
Atypical autism and autism spectrum disorder
With the publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013, all former categories of autism were merged into a single diagnosis known as autism spectrum disorder.
The pervasive developmental disorders, along with atypical autism, were removed from the official classification. Studies show that around half of the children who would be diagnosed with atypical autism in the past meet the diagnostic criteria for autistic spectrum disorder.
Today, autism spectrum disorder is the only diagnostic category used for autism, regardless of where on the spectrum your child is. The autism severity assessment scale (levels 1-3) is based on the extent of support needed for daily function. However, the term atypical autism is still occasionally used to describe children and adults who have only some symptoms of autism, but lack some of the other defining characteristics.
The Symptoms of Atypical Autism
Autism affects three areas: verbal and non-verbal communication, social behavior, and flexible thinking and behavior. Children diagnosed with atypical autism share the majority of characteristics of autism, although these don’t necessarily appear across all three categories. They usually display milder developmental and social delays and less stereotypical autistic behaviors than their peers on the spectrum.
Children with atypical autism may struggle with some, though not all, symptoms of autism, including:
Inappropriate or unusual social behavior
Children who have atypical autism may experience difficulties socializing with other children and communicating in socially appropriate ways, like making eye contact or letting another person take a turn in a conversation.
Irregular motor development
Most autistic children, also those diagnosed with atypical autism, have at least some motor difficulties. These include both gross-motor skills problems, such as poor balance and coordination, and fine-motor issues like manipulating objects and poor handwriting.
Delayed cognitive development
Children with atypical autism frequently struggle with focus, transitions, memory, time management, and emotional control. Like other children with ASD, they may find it hard to pay attention, communicate, and understand other people’s perspectives. These challenges may impact their learning and development.
Slow development of speech and language comprehension
For autistic children, it may be harder to learn and use language than it is for typically developing children because they are often more focused on what is going on around them than communicating with others. They might be slower to develop and understand language and have difficulties expressing themselves.
Verbal and nonverbal communication issues
Atypical autism is characterized by a communication deficit that may manifest itself as an unusual speech pattern, poor grammatical structure, and lack of intonation and rhythm.
Sensitivity to taste, sight, sound, smell, and tactile sensations
Research shows that close to 90 percent of people diagnosed with autism have either extreme sensory sensitivity or hardly notice sensations such as colors, sounds, or smells. Likewise, atypical autism is often accompanied by sensory experiences that are significantly different from those of children without the condition.
Repetitive or ritualistic behaviors
Many children with atypical autism display repetitive behaviors indicative of autism such as hand flapping, rocking, and tapping. Repeating certain gestures, actions, or words is a soothing activity autistic children use as a way to feel a sense of control in stressful situations.
Other symptoms of atypical autism
Children with atypical autism may display a range of other symptoms typical of autism spectrum disorder, such as:
- Lack of empathy or sharing emotions with others
- Inability to form age-appropriate peer friendships
- Difficulty maintaining a conversation
- Lack of meaningful language
- Excessive interest in a specific subject area, such as trains, machines, or animals
- Strong interest in objects, which is unrelated to their functional use
- Unusual likes and dislikes
- Lack of symbolic and pretend play
- Failure to share attention, like showing objects to someone or pointing at something of interest
- Uneven skill development, for example, normal development in some areas and delays in others, and
- Difficulty accepting changes.
Diagnosing Atypical Autism
If you think that your child might have symptoms of atypical autism, you should talk to their pediatrician or a primary care physician. They will refer you to a specialist—either a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist—who will do a comprehensive evaluation of their development and behavior and make a diagnosis.
Alternatively, you can request an evaluation from your state’s Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center without a doctor’s referral.
However, you should keep in mind that atypical autism or PDD-NOS is no longer used as an official diagnosis. Because it is not included in the DSM-5, atypical autism will probably not be diagnosed by your child’s physician. Depending on the quantity and intensity of autistic traits, your child will be classified as being on the autism spectrum and given a severity rating. After that, your child will receive an in-depth diagnosis that will be used to develop a personalized treatment plan that suits his or her particular needs.
Children with atypical autism display great variations in their abilities, which can make diagnosing the disorder challenging. What’s more, atypical autism may be hard to detect because its symptoms are often mild and less disruptive than those of autism disorder.
Finally, atypical autism is not to be confused with high-functioning autism, which describes children with autism spectrum disorder who have better functional communication and higher cognitive functioning than the others on the spectrum.
How ABA Therapy Can Help Children With Atypical Autism
Even if your child is diagnosed with the equivalent of atypical autism and has relatively mild symptoms, the recommended treatments are likely to be very similar to those for autism spectrum disorder. Standard treatments that apply across the spectrum include speech or language therapy, occupational or physical therapy, and behavior and developmental therapy.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a form of behavioral therapy that focuses on changing unwanted behaviors and reinforcing desirable ones. It is one of the most successful interventions for helping children with autism learn desired behaviors. Research shows that ABA therapy is the most effective form of autism treatment, with an over 90 percent improvement rate.
ABA therapy is used to build and improve social and communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder such as:
- Following directions
- Understanding social cues such as facial expressions and body language
- Social skills like initiating conversations and responding to questions
- Reducing problematic behaviors including tantrums
- Basic academic and pre-academic skills.
ABA therapy breaks down each of the essential skills into small, concrete steps. It then builds toward more significant changes in functioning and independence levels. ABA therapy sessions consist of a combination of play, direct instructions, various activities, adaptive skills training, and parent guidance.
Applied behavioral analysis therapy typically uses positive reinforcement in the form of rewards and other incentives. When a desirable behavior is followed by a motivator, like a special toy or activity, children are more likely to repeat the action. Over time, this method can encourage positive behavioral changes in children with autism.
Because no two individuals with atypical autism are alike, ABA therapy provides targeted treatment based on your child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. The Hidden Talents ABA interventions are highly individualized and based on a thorough assessment by a qualified developmental specialist. The evaluation considers factors such as your child’s behavioral history, current symptoms, communication patterns, social competence, and neuropsychological functioning.
Feel free to contact us for more information about ABA therapy or to request an intake evaluation. You can call us at 404-487-6005, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out our contact form, and we’ll be in touch with you as soon as possible.