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 brain, autism interferes with the normal development of the brain in the areas of reasoning, social interaction, and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have deficiencies 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. They may exhibit repeated body movements (hand flapping, rocking, etc.), have unusual responses to people or attachments to objects and resist changes in routines. In come cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may occur. Individuals may also experience sensitivities to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
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 exhibited.
A diagnosis of autism is based on the standards set forth in a diagnostic handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fourth edition (DSM-IV). The diagnosis of autism is made when a specified number of characteristics listed in the DSM-IV are present in ranges inappropriate for the child’s age. By comparison, a diagnosis of PDD-NOS may be made when a child exhibits fewer symptoms than in autism, although those symptoms may be exactly the same as those in a child with an autism diagnosis. Asperger’s disorder tends to involve symptoms more markedly different than those seen in autism, although there are some similarities.
A brief observation in a single setting cannot present a true picture of an individual’s abilities and behaviors. Parental input and developmental history are very important components of making an accurate diagnosis. At first glance, 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 in autism. However, it is important to distinguish autism from other disorders so that an appropriate and effective educational and treatment plan can be determined.
Most professionals will agree that there is no standard “type” or “typical” person with autism. Parents may hear more that one label applied to the same child: for example, autistic-like, communication disorder with autistic tendencies, significant developmental delay with autistic tendencies, high functioning or low functioning autism, mild or moderate or severe autism. These labels don’t describe the differences between the children as much as they may indicate differences in professionals’ training, vocabulary and exposure to autism. More important than the term used is to understand that, whatever the diagnosis, children and adults with autism can learn and function productively and show gains with appropriate education and treatment.
Many professionals still argue whether Asperger’s is truly a form of autism. Some professionals believe the distinction between autism and PDD-NOS is not significant. Some may believe they are “sparing” the parents by giving a diagnosis of PDD-NOS rather than autism. Unfortunately, this can lead to failure to obtain the appropriate services for the child. It is important to understand that whatever the type of autism diagnosis, these children are likely to benefit from similar approaches to education and treatment. We cannot stress enough, the importance of securing a timely and accurate diagnosis.
What Causes Autism?
Medical researchers are exploring different explanations for the various forms of autism. Although no one cause of autism is known, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain. Scans such as the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) show abnormalities in the structure of the brain, with significant differences within the cerebellum including the size and number or Purkinje cells. In some families there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities. This suggests there is a genetic basis to the disorder, although no one gene has been directly linked to autism. In all likelihood, research will show that several genes are involved.
Several previous 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 not to 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.
Here are some helpful websites if you want to learn more.
Thanks for listening!