Autism Information

Source - Autism Society of America


What is Autism?                                                    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).


Prevalence of Autism                                          top

Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, affecting an estimated 1 in 166 births (Centers for Disease Control Prevention, 2004). Roughly translated, this means as many as 1.5 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism. And this number is on the rise.

Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10-17 percent per year. At this rate, the Autism Society of America estimates that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

Autism knows no racial, ethnic, social boundaries, family income, lifestyle, or educational levels and can affect any family, and any child.

And although the overall incidence of autism is consistent around the globe, it is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.


Common Characteristics of Autism                top

While the understanding of autism has grown tremendously since Dr. Leo Kanner first described it in 1943, 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. Contrary to popular understanding, many children and adults with autism may make eye contact, show affection, smile and laugh, and demonstrate a variety of other emotions, although in varying degrees. Like other children, they respond to their environment in both positive and negative ways.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. 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.  Like other children, they respond to their environment differently.

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 than the term used is to understand that, whatever the diagnosis, children with autism can learn and function productively and show gains with appropriate education and treatment.

Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics.

People with autism process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism may also exhibit some of the following traits.

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Laughing, crying, showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
  • Tantrums
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • May not want to cuddle or be cuddled
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spins objects
  • Inappropriate attachments to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fears of danger
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range.

Diagnosing Autism                                            top

There are 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.

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. 


Early Diagnosis                                                  top

Research indicates that early diagnosis is associated with dramatically better outcomes for individuals with autism. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the earlier the child can begin benefiting from specialized intervention.


Diagnostic Tools                                                  top

The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorders may or may not be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but usually become obvious during early childhood (24 months to 6 years).
As part of a well-baby/well-child visit, your child's doctor should do a "developmental screening" asking specific questions about your baby's progress. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists these five behaviors which signal that further evaluation is warranted:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age.

Having any of these five "red flags" does not mean your child has autism, but because the characteristics of the disorder vary so much, a child should have further evaluations by a multidisciplinary team that may include a behavior analyst, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, neurologist, speech/language therapist, learning consultant, or other professionals knowledgeable about autism.

While there is no one behavioral or communications test that can detect autism, several screening instruments have been developed that are now used in diagnosing autism.


Links                                                  top


Autism videos from NBC Universal - http://autismspeaks.org/autism/menu/video.asp