What is Autism?
Autism is known as a complex developmental disorder. Experts believe that autism presents itself during the first three years of a person's life. The condition is the result of a neurological disorder that has an effect on normal brain function, affecting development of the person's communication and social interaction skills in varying degrees. It is also characterized by restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autism is one of three recognized disorders in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the other two being Asperger Syndrome, which lacks delays in cognitive development and language, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (commonly abbreviated as PDD-NOS), which is diagnosed when the full set of criteria for Autism or Asperger Syndrome are not met.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means it exhibits itself in many different ways. A diagnosis can vary from mild to severe, and though children who have autism are likely to exhibit some similar traits or behaviors, each person with autism is as individual as a snowflake with a unique personality and combination of characteristics that vary in degree and severity. Two individuals with an autism diagnosis can act completely different from one another and have varying strengths and challenges. For instance, one child may not have any meaningful verbal communication but excels in reading and writing, another can be so mildly affected he's able to attend school in a mainstream classroom but has difficulties initiating and/or maintain a normal conversation with someone and difficulty reading social cues.
Individuals with autism also process and respond to sensory information in unique ways. Extreme sensory issues are very common in autism. Some children with autism cannot tolerate sounds or hugs, while another is oblivious to sounds and craves hugs. One child may have an exaggerated reaction to loud noises, while another may not react at all. Autistic children with sensory issues have difficulty filtering sensory input. Their nervous systems do not know what to block out and what to amplify. Many professionals feel that many of the typical behaviors of autism (as listed below) are actually a result of sensory integration difficulties.
Individuals with autism may exhibit a variety of the following traits:
What Causes Autism?
· Speech/Language delay
· Non-responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests are in normal range
· Self-injury (movements that injure or can injure the person, such as eye poking, skin picking, hand biting, and head banging)
· Stereotypy/Stimming (repetitive movement-such as hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling, or body rocking)
· Compulsive behavior (arranging objects in stacks or lines)
· Insistence on sameness, resistance to change (insisting that the furniture not be moved or refusing to be interrupted
· Ritualistic behavior (unvarying pattern of daily activities, such as an unchanging menu or a dressing ritual)
· Restricted behavior (limited in focus, interest, or activity, such as preoccupation with a single television program, toy, or game)
· Difficulty expressing wants and needs
· Lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were once using)
· Flapping hands/ this may be accompanied by jumping up and down with excitement
· Echolalia (speech consisting of literally repeating something heard)
· Unusual eating behaviors, extra pickiness/food refusal, very limited diet
· Lack of pointing or hand gestures (waving, pointing for joint attention)
· Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
· Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason; showing distress without obvious reason
· Preference to being alone
· Repetitive non-speech vocalizations
· Preoccupation with hands
· May not understand social cues
· Extreme dislike of certain foods
· Confusion between the pronouns "I" and "You"
· Hand leading (leading your hand to what he/she wants)
· No interest in interactive games
· Have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings
· Excellent memorization skills
· Difficulty mingling with others
· Extreme dislike of certain sounds (may cover ears with hands)
· Avoids eye contact or decreased eye contact
· Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
· Sustained unusual play (spinning the wheel on a car instead of rolling it in pretend play)
· Enjoy spinning and/or spinning objects
· Prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they want to
· May be unable to use imagination during play
· Aggressive behavior due to anxiety and/or frustration
· Extreme dislike of touching certain textures
· Obsessive attachment to objects
· Unusual or odd speech patterns (repeat words and phrases heard by others, i.e. tv or videos)
· Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
· No real fears of danger
· Extremely sensitive gag reflex
· Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
· Wide scattering of gross/fine motor skills
What Causes Autism?
The short answer is that most cases of autism are considered "idiopathic," meaning "without known cause." There are a few genetic disorders and toxic exposures that are now known to cause autism but for the vast majority of cases it’s unknown.
How Common is Autism?
Autism is one of the four major developmental disabilities in the United States. Prevalence rates of autism differ from population to population. However, autism is probably more common worldwide than once thought, as more cases are being diagnosed due to increasing awareness. According to the CDC it is estimated that 1 in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. An estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide are affected by autism. Government statistics suggest the prevalence rate of autism is increasing 10-17 percent annually. There is not established explanation for this increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered. Studies suggest boys are more likely than girls to develop autism and receive the diagnosis three to four times more frequently. Current estimates are that in the United States alone, 1 out of 70 boys are diagnosed with autism.
What Treatments/Interventions are Available?
There is no single treatment/intervention for children with autism. In order to choose the right treatment or combination of treatments for children and adults with autism, (from early childhood onward) becoming well informed about the resources that are available is the first step. Careful on-going assessment of the needs and specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual is crucial. The availability and accessibility of effective evidence-based treatments and interventions will also be critical. Some of the most common interventions are:
· Applied Behavior Analysis
· Pivotal Response Treatment
· Speech Therapy
· Occupational Therapy
· Relationship Development Intervention
· Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)/American Sign Language (ASL)
· Verbal Behavior Intervention
· Gluten Free, Casein Free Diet (GFCF)
· Sensory Integration Therapy
· Life-skill building
· Biological and/or Biomedical TreatmentsCommon Myths Associated with Autism
There are many common myths and misconceptions about autism. One of the most common misunderstandings is that all children with autism don’t make eye contact. Contrary to popular belief, many children with autism do make eye contact; it just may be less often or different from a neuro-typical child. Some individuals learn to make eye contact after working at it for years. Another common mistaken belief is that children with autism will never be able to communicate. In fact, many children with autism can develop adequate functional language and others can develop some type of communication skills, such as sign language or use of pictures. There are people that view all individuals with autism as having extraordinary skills in certain areas as depicted by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. While some people with autism have exceptional (savant) skills in select areas, it doesn’t apply to all individuals. Those with autism have a wide range of IQ scores and skills. Some believe that autism can be cured or outgrown. Children do not "outgrow" autism, but symptoms may lessen as the child develops and receives treatment. One of the most devastating myths about children with autism is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some children, they can and do give affection. However, it may require patience on the parents' part to accept and give love in the child's terms.