The Autism Puzzle: A Lifelong Journey for a Brighter Future

I have a family member diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and to say that his life has been challenging would be an understatement.  Unfortunately, he was not diagnosed until the age of 16 and prior to his diagnosis, he was lumped under the large umbrella of “Learning Disabled”.  It was a never-ending pursuit of the best services for him and his parents endured unspeakable frustration and grief.  However, although the small window of early diagnosis was missed with him, he has made significant gains over the course of his life with the right services.

The knowledge we have gained about ASD has led to increased understanding, research, resources and opportunities for those with this diagnosis.  Of course, the earlier the detection, the better.  But I strongly believe that individuals diagnosed with ASD have a lifetime of potential to be realized because learning never stops!  In my line of work, I specialize in working with adults with disabilities and their staff.  I am blissfully surprised every day with the growth, learning and increased independence I see.


Parents are truly the most valuable advocate an individual has in seeking diagnosis and treatment for ASD.  The DSM 5 outlines some commonalities found within the spectrum and although every individual is different, there are some basic tell-tale signs that should spark some further investigation into a possible diagnosis:

  • Preferring to be alone and avoiding interaction is common in ASD. Leo Kanner popularized the term “autism” in the 1940s and this word has Greek origins meaning the state of being by oneself.  This can cause strained relationships with family and isolation from peers.
  • Inappropriate social interaction in relationships is a common sign; disjointed reactions or inappropriate emotional responses to situations such as bursts of yelling, crying, or laughing at the wrong time can happen.
  • Verbal communication is delayed or absent. This characteristic always jumps out at me – for individuals with such severe needs, voicing their needs and wants can be so difficult and many times, this leads to problem behavior.  That is why I always view communication as a primary need and this component is a must in any quality service model.
  • Rigidity and repetition are also common signs associated with ASD. This can look like an individual’s desperate need for things to be the same with no deviation from the routine (diet, schools, schedule, etc).  This can look like obsessions with certain topics, activities and/or objects.  Stereotypy such as odd noises, hand flapping, or other odd body movements are common.
  • Sensory input can be over or under the normal perception levels. Certain stimuli through our five senses can be overwhelming to individuals with ASD.

As a behavior analyst, I see behavior as an individual trying to meet a need.  That’s it.  Sometimes those behaviors are self-destructive or aggressive but it does not negate the legitimate need they have.  So given that Applied Behavior Analysis is the only empirically – proven treatment for ASD, it is a service worth fighting tooth and nail for on behalf of those in need.  We must give our clients and family members the voice and the skills they need to realize their potential.  Once we pave the way and support them every step, their future becomes significantly brighter.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.

Brennan, Dan. (2015).  History of Autism.  Web MD.  Retrieved from

History of Autism.  Autism Epicenter. Retrieved from