Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the
first three years of life. the result of a neurological disorder that affects
the functioning of the brain, autism and its associated behaviors have been
estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 500 individuals. (Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention 1997). Autism is four times more prevalent in
boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family
income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's
Autism Impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social
interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically
have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions,
and leisure or play activities. The disorder makes it hard for them to
communicate with others and relate to the outside world. In some cases,
aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism
may exhibit repeated body movements (hand flapping, rocking), unusual responses
to people or attachments to objects and resistance to changes in routines.
Individuals may also experience sensitivities in the five senses of sight,
hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Over on half million people in the U.S. today have autism or some form of
pervasive developmental disorder. Its prevalence rate makes autism one of the
most common developmental disabilities. Yet most of the public, including many
professionals in the medical, educational, and vocational fields, are still
unaware of how autism affects people and how they can effectively work with
individuals with autism.
Until the mid 1980’s, autism was believed to be caused by parents who did not
love their children. Mothers were referred to as “refrigerator moms”.
Families did not publicly acknowledge their children had autism and most
children were placed in institutions.
By the mid 1980’s, autism was
categorized as a psychiatric illness. Medical coverage was limited to that of
mental illness. Most therapies were not covered by insurance and all treatments
were treated as experimental and covered at best on a limited basis.
By the mid 1990’s, the medical
community began referring to autism as a Biomedical Developmental Disability.
Insurance has not embraced this change and coverage
Until the mid 1990’s, research into the causes of autism was limited to a few
dedicated individuals who received little funding. Autism was believed to be so
complex that finding answers into the causes of autism was more like finding the
needle in a haystack.
Researchers from all over the world are now devoting considerable time and
energy into finding the answer to this critical question. Medical researchers
are exploring different explanations for the various forms of autism. Although a
single specific cause of autism is not known, current research links autism to
biological or neurological differences in the brain. In many families there
appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities -- which suggests
there is a genetic basis to the disorder -- although at this time no gene has
been directly linked to autism. The genetic basis is believed by researchers to
be highly complex, probably involving several genes in combination.
Several outdated theories about the cause of autism have been proven false.
Autism is not a mental illness. Children with autism are not unruly kids who choose to not behave. Autism is not caused by bad parenting. Furthermore, no known psychological factors in the
development of the child have been shown to cause autism.
How is Autism
There is no medical tests for diagnosing autism. An accurate diagnosis must be
based on observation of the individual's communication, behavior, and
developmental levels. However, because many of the behaviors associated with
autism are shared by other disorders, various medical tests may be ordered to
rule out or identify other possible causes of the symptoms being exhibited.
Since the characteristics of the disorder vary so much, ideally a child should
be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team which may include a neurologist,
psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning
consultant, or another professional knowledgeable about autism. Diagnosis is
difficult for a practitioner with limited training or exposure to autism.
Sometimes, autism has been misdiagnosed by well-meaning professionals.
Difficulties in the recognition and acknowledgment of autism often lead to a
lack of services to meet the complex needs of individuals with autism.
A brief observation in a single setting cannot present a true picture of an
individual's abilities and behaviors. Parental (and other caregivers') input and
developmental history are very important components of making an accurate
diagnosis. At first glance, some persons with autism may appear to have mental
retardation, a behavior disorder, problems with hearing, or even odd and
eccentric behavior. To complicate matters further, these conditions can co-occur
with autism. However, it is important to distinguish autism from other
conditions, since an accurate diagnosis and early identification can provide the
basis for building an appropriate and effective educational and treatment
program. Sometimes professionals who are not knowledgeable about the needs and
opportunities for early intervention in autism do not offer an autism diagnosis
even if it is appropriate. This hesitation may be due to a misguided wish to
spare the family. Unfortunately, this too can lead to failure to obtain
appropriate services for the child.
Individuals with autism usually exhibit at least half of the traits listed
below. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary in intensity from
symptom to symptom. In addition, the behavior usually occurs across many
different situations and is consistently inappropriate for their age.
on sameness; resists changes in routine.
- Severe language deficits.
- Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of
- Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal responsive
- Laughing, crying or showing distress for reasons not apparent to others.
- Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
- Tantrums -- displays extreme distress for no apparent reason.
- Difficulty in mixing with others.
- May not want cuddling or act cuddly.
- Little or no eye contact.
- Unresponsive to normal teaching methods.
- Sustained odd play.
- Spins objects.
- Inappropriate attachment to objects.
- Apparent oversensitivity to undersensitivity to pain.
- No real fear of dangers.
- Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme underactivity.
- Non responsive to verbal cues; acts as of deaf although hearing tests in
- Uneven gross/fine motor skills. (may not kick a ball but can stack
note this symptom list is not a substitute for a full-scale diagnostic
Consult your health care provider to obtain a complete diagnostic evaluation.
Is there more
than one type of Autism?
Autistic Disorder: Impairments in social interaction,
communication, and imaginative play prior to age 3 years. Stereotyped behaviors,
interests and activities.
Asperger's Disorder: Characterized by impairments in
social interactions and the presence of restricted interests and activities,
with no clinically significant general delay in language, and testing in the
range of average to above average intelligence.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder: Not Otherwise
Specified -- (commonly referred to as atypical autism) a diagnosis of PDD-NOS
may be made when a child does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis,
but there is a severe and pervasive impairment in specified behaviors.
Rett's Disorder: Progressive disorder which, to date,
has occurred only in girls. Period of normal development and then loss of
previously acquired skills, loss of purposeful use of the hands replaced with
repetitive hand movements beginning at the age of 1 - 4 years.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: Normal development
for at least the first 2 years, significant loss of previously acquired skills.
Autism is a spectrum disorder. In other words, 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.
Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one
another and have varying skills.
Therefore there is no standard "type" or "typical" person
with autism. Parents may hear different terms used to describe children within
this spectrum, such as: autistic-like, autistic tendencies, autism spectrum,
high-functioning or low-functioning autism, more-abled or less-abled. more
important to understand is, whatever the diagnosis, children can learn and
function productively and show gains from appropriate education and treatment.
Society of America, January 2000