Understanding Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities

Autism | Mental RetardationCerebral Palsy | Spina BifidaPrader-Willi Syndrome


Autism http://www.autism-society.org        top

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 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.

Autism is one of five disorders coming under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by "severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development," including social interaction and communications skills (DSM-IV-TR).  The five disorders under PDD are Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder, and PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).  Each of these disorders has specific diagnostic criteria as outlined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).


Mental Retardation                                     top

Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills.

This disability originates before age 18.

Five assumptions essential to the application of the definition

1.      Limitations in present functioning must be considered within the context of community environments typical of the individual's age peers and culture.

2.      Valid assessment considers cultural and linguistic diversity as well as differences in communication, sensory, motor, and behavioral factors.

3.      Within an individual, limitations often coexist with strengths.

4.      An important purpose of describing limitations is to develop a profile of needed supports.

5.      With appropriate personalized supports over a sustained period, the life functioning of the person with mental retardation generally will improve.


Cerebral Palsy                                              top

Cerebral palsy is a term used to describe a group of chronic conditions affecting body movements and muscle coordination.  It is caused by damage to one or more specific areas of the brain, usually occurring during fetal development, or during infancy.  It can also occur before, during or shortly following birth.

"Cerebral" refers to the brain and "Palsy" to a disorder of movement or posture.  If someone has cerebral palsy it means that because of an injury to their brain (cerebral) they are not able to use some of the muscles in their body in the normal way (palsy).  Children with cerebral palsy may not be able to walk, talk, eat or play in the same ways as most other children.

Cerebral palsy is neither progressive nor communicable.  It is also not "curable" in the accepted sense, although education, therapy and applied technology can help persons with cerebral palsy lead productive lives.  It is important to know that cerebral palsy is not a disease or illness.  It isn't contagious and it doesn't get worse.  Children who have cerebral palsy will have it all their lives.

Cerebral palsy is characterized by an inability to fully control motor function, particularly muscle control and coordination.  Depending on which areas of the brain have been damaged, one or more of the following may occur:

  • muscle tightness or spasm

  • involuntary movement

  • disturbance in gait and mobility

  • abnormal sensation and perception

  • impairment of sight, hearing or speech

  • seizures


Spina Bifida                                                 top

Spina Bifida (spy-nuh-bi-fi-duh) is the most frequently occurring permanently disabling birth defect.  It affects approximately one out of every 1,000 newborns in the United States.  More children are affected by this condition than muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis combined.

Spina Bifida (myelomeningocele) is a disabling birth defect of the spinal column resulting from the failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. In severe cases, the spinal cord protrudes through the back. Surgery to close the newborn's back is generally performed within 24 hours after birth to minimize the risk of infection and to preserve existing function in the spinal cord.

The condition may cause varying degrees of paralysis and loss of feeling in the lower limbs, and bowel and bladder complications. A large percentage of children born with spina bifida have hydrocephalus, the accumulation of fluid in the brain. Hydrocephalus is controlled by a surgical procedure called "shunting" which relieves the fluid build up in the brain by redirecting it into the abdominal area. Although spina bifida is relatively common, until recently most children born with myelomeningocele died shortly after birth. Due to revolutionary surgical techniques, today we can expect 85-90% of newborns to survive.


Prader-Willi Syndrome                            top

Prader-Willi syndrome is a distinct condition characterized by neurological impairments causing an altered pattern of growth and development with a unique hyperphagia (over-eating).  This preoccupation with food and accompanying compulsion to eat can cause extreme obesity with premature death.  Early intervention with a dietitian and behavioral psychologist to prevent excessive weight gain in childhood is crucial.