Autism is a severely incapacitating, lifelong developmental disability that begins at birth or during the first 3 years of life. In the broader category would be both people with classical autism and others with varying degrees of autistic-like behavior on the autism spectrum. Autism is four times more common in males than females, and has been found throughout the world in families of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds. Currently, as many as 1 in 68 children are being diagnosed with autism.
• Slow development or lack of physical, social and learning skills.
• Immature rhythms of speech, limited understanding of ideas, and use of words without attaching the usual meaning to them.
• Abnormal responses to sensations. Sight, hearing, touch, pain, balance, smell, taste, the way a child holds his body – any one or a combination of these responses may be affected.
• Abnormal ways of relating to people, objects and events.
Approximately 60% of all those with autism have I.Q. scores below 50; 20% between 50 and 70; and 20% greater than 70. Most show wide variations in performance on different tests at different times. Some individuals with autism have distinct skills in music, mathematics, or in using spatial concepts (for ex. working jigsaw puzzles), but manifest severe defects in other areas.
There appear to be several possible causes, either alone or in combination with others. Among these are untreated phenylketonuria, rubella, celiac disease, and chemical exposure in pregnancy. Biochemical imbalance and genetic predisposition have also emerged as possible causes. No known factors in the psychological environment of a child have been shown to cause autism.
Because there are no medical tests for autism at present, the diagnosis must be based on observations of the child’s behavior. Sometimes the process of elimination is the only guide. For older children, whose early symptoms have changed, it may be necessary to interview the parents about the child’s early years in order to avoid misdiagnosis.The most common assessment tool is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).
Autism occurs either by itself or in association with other disorders which affect brain function. Prenatal viral infections, some metabolic disturbances, epilepsy, or intellectual deficits may result in, or exist in conjunction with autism.
In milder forms, autism most resembles a learning disability such as childhood aphasia. Usually, however, people with autism are substantially impacted. With approximately 3% of those affected, severe autism may cause extreme forms of self-injurious, repetitive, highly unusual, and aggressive behavior. The behavior may persist and be very difficult to change, posing a tremendous challenge to those who must manage, treat and teach individuals with autism. People with autism live normal life spans. Since certain symptoms may change or even disappear over time, persons with autism should be re-evaluated periodically and their training adjusted to meet their changing needs.
Various methods of treatment have been tried but no single treatment is effective in all cases. Although there is no know cure, appropriate programming, based on individual functioning level and need, is of prime importance in promoting programs of success.
Highly structured, skill-oriented training, tailored to the individual, has proven most helpful. Social and language skills should be a focal point in learning. Thought must also be given to avoiding secondary handicaps, such as loss of muscle tone when inactivity is a problem.
Supportive counseling may be helpful for families with members who have autism, just as it is for other families with members who have lifelong disabilities. Physicians and case managers can usually advise parents as to counseling services available. Care must be taken to avoid unenlightened counselors who erroneously believe that parental attitudes and behavior cause autism.
In the types of autism where metabolic abnormalities can be identified, controlled diet and/or medication can be beneficial. Examples are those whose autism is exacerbated by an excess of uric acid in the blood, or whose autism is aggravated by nutritional imbalances. Also, properly monitored medication to decrease specific symptoms can help some individuals with autism respond more readily to education and training programs.
The field of autism research is quite broad. There are countless investigations into the detection, prevention, and treatment of autism.
Because the causes of autism are not clearly understood, researchers have been studying the genetic components playing a role in autism along with the impact of undetermined environmental factors.
There are also many studies investigating early brain development and functioning, social interactions in infants, helping people with autism find better ways to live with the condition, the best education techniques to use, successful ways to confront behavioral issues, and potential new medication treatments to prevent or alleviate its effects.
Autism is a baffling, life-long disorder. Scientists will forever be in search of new information, and answers to the questions of “why did this happen?” and “how can we help?”
Click here to download a comprehensive “Autism Fact Sheet.”