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 occurrence.

  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
remained limited.

  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.

What Causes Autism?

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 Diagnosed?

  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.

Autism Check List

  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.

 - Insistence on sameness; resists changes in routine.
 - Severe language deficits.
 - Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words.
 - Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal responsive language).
 - 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 normal range.
 - Uneven gross/fine motor skills. (may not kick a ball but can stack blocks).

Please note this symptom list is not a substitute for a full-scale diagnostic assessment.
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.


Source: Autism Society of America, January 2000



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