About Autism

Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects functioning of the brain, autism and its associated behaviors occur in approximately 1 in 110 individuals (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). Medical researchers are exploring different explanations for how autism is caused. Although no one specific cause has been identified, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain, and to a possible genetic cause. Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls, and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Incomes, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect the chance of occurrence. Autism is not a mental illness. In fact, there are no known factors in the psychological environment of a child that have been shown to cause autism.
Autism is often referred to as a spectrum disorder, meaning the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults can exhibit any combination of the behaviors in any degree of severity. Through the course of an autistic person’s life, certain symptoms may change or even disappear. These areas of development most affected by autism are: Communication: language develops slowly or not at all; uses words without attaching the usual meaning to them; uses gestures instead of words; short attention span. Social Interaction: individual may spend time alone rather than with others; shows little interest in making friends; less responsive to social cues such as eye contact or smiles. Sensory Impairment: unusual reactions to physical sensations such as being overly sensitive to touch or under-responsive to pain. Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste may be affected to a lesser or greater degree. Play: lack of spontaneous or imaginative play; does not imitate other’s actions; doesn’t initiate pretend games. Behaviors: may be overactive or very passive; throws frequent tantrums for no apparent reason; perseverates (shows an obsessive interest in a single item, idea, or person); apparent lack of common sense; may show aggressive or violent behavior or injure self; often has difficulty with changes in routine.
There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. In order to be diagnosed accurately, a child must be observed by professionals skilled in determining communication, behavioral and developmental levels. However, because many of the behaviors associated with autism are shared by other disorders, a doctor may complete various medical tests to rule out other possible causes. Diagnosis is difficult for a practitioner with limited training or exposure to autism, since a wide variety of characteristics may be present. Autism can occur in conjunction with other disorders such as metabolic disturbances, epilepsy, mental retardation, or genetic disorders such as Fragile X Syndrome. Approximately 25-30% of children affected may develop a seizure pattern at some period during their lives. It is very important to distinguish autism from other conditions, since accurate diagnosis can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective education and treatment program.
Many professionals utilize a medical diagnostic reference known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fourth edition (DSM-IV). Four autism-related disorders are grouped under the heading, “Pervasive Developmental Disorder” (PDD). They are: Autism, PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified), Asperger’s syndrome and Rhett’s syndrome. The diagnosis of autism is made when a specified number of behavioral and developmental characteristics listed in the manual are present. Since autism is a syndrome diagnosed by a variety of behavioral and developmental criteria, different professionals use the four diagnoses differently. Most professionals will agree that there is no “typical” person with autism. As a parent you may hear your child described as autistic like, learning disabled, having autistic tendencies, high functioning, low functioning, etc. These differing descriptions are mainly indicative of the differences in the professionals’ training, vocabulary and exposure to autism. There are many debates over whether there are real and significant distinctions in the “types” of autism. The four different diagnostic categories listed in the DSM-IV might simply be thought of as different shades of the same color.
To cure means, “to restore to health, soundness, or normality.” In the medical sense, there is no cure for the differences in the brain which result in autism. However, since autism was first described in 1943, our understanding of autism and how to cope with the disorder has grown greatly. Certain symptoms may dramatically decrease or disappear altogether as the child ages. With the appropriate intervention, many autistic behaviors can be positively changed. The majority of children and adults will, however, continue to exhibit some symptoms of autism to some degree throughout their entire lives.
Experience has shown that individuals with autism respond well to a highly structured education program tailored to the individual needs of the person. Early intervention is essential for the future development of the child. Different therapies in an educational program may include speech and language, behavioral modification, social skill development, sensory integration, vision therapy, music therapy, auditory training, medications and dietary interventions. Not every approach or therapy benefits every child with autism. To be effective, any approach should be flexible in nature, rely on positive reinforcement, be reevaluated on a regular basis, and provide a smooth transition from home to school to community environments. A good program will also incorporate training and support systems for the caregivers. Rarely can a family, classroom teacher or other caregiver provide effectively for a person with autism unless offered consultation or in-service training by a specialist knowledgeable about the disability. A generation ago, 90% of the people diagnosed with autism were eventually placed in institutions. Today the picture is brighter. More families are able to care for their children at home. Group homes, assisted living arrangements, or residential facilities offer more options. Some adults with autism live and work independently in the community.