What is Autism?

Autism is a brain disorder that emerges in childhood and typically affects social skills, language skills and behavior. Each individual case of autism is different, but the disorder is characterized by a list of symptoms that include difficulty relating to the outside world, trouble developing verbal and non-verbal communication skills and a need for an ordered, consistent environment.

It is important to note that today, more than ever, there are many treatment options available to those with autism. With current strides in therapy and research, autistic children and adults do have the hope of functioning in society.

What Causes Autism?

Scientists have found that autism is caused by abnormalities in the brain structure or function. Research continues in hopes of discovering what causes these abnormalities.

One theory addresses heredity. Several studies show that identical twins are far more likely than fraternal twins to both have autism. Studies also indicate that parents who have one child with autism are at a slightly increased risk of having more than one child with the disorder. Another theory, still under extensive research, involves issues during pregnancy. Anything that disrupts normal brain development during pregnancy may have lifelong effects on mental functioning. However, studies so far have found no clear link.

Though the causes of the disorder are not clear, it is easier to understand the function or reason for some behaviors associated with the disorder.

For example, the lack of developed language skills can explain screaming fits and tantrums, since the child has not learned appropriate expressions of unhappiness. Until they are taught better means of expressing their needs, people with autism do whatever they can to communicate with others.

People with autism often have confused sensory perceptions. They may engage in repetitive behaviors – eating the same foods day after day, always sitting in the same seat, having a set daily routine – to lend some stability to this confused world.
Additionally, with the disorder often comes exaggerated stimuli – sometimes to the point of painfulness. Focused behaviors, such as staring at one focal point or continually squeezing a ball, might help to block out these painful stimuli. These can all be viewed as attempts to gain control over one’s environment and make sense of the world.

What are the Symptoms of Autism?

Below is a comprehensive list of symptoms associated with autism that children must display consistently over time. Not every person will experience every symptom listed. In addition, the symptoms listed below will be experienced in different degrees.

Symptoms in Infants

  • Avoiding of eye contact
  • Acting as if deaf
  • Acting unaware of the comings and goings of others
  • Blocking out surroundings, as if in a shell
  • Remaining fixated on a single item or activity
  • Rocking back and forth persistently
  • Showing no sensitivity to physical pain

Social Symptoms

  • Difficulty learning to engage in human interaction
  • Difficulty in learning to interpret what others are thinking and feeling
  • Problems seeing things from another’s perspective
  • Tendency to be physically aggressive

Language Difficulties

  • Muteness in about half of children diagnosed with autism
  • Ability only to repeat or parrot what is heard
  • Confusion of pronouns; failure to grasp the concepts of “you” and “I”
  • Repetition of the same phrase in inappropriate circumstances
  • Inability to understand or comprehend the meaning of body language
  • Screaming or tantrum-throwing as substitution for speech

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Repetitive motions and actions
  • Demand for consistency

Sensory Symptoms

  • Failure of stimuli to merge into a coherent mental picture resulting in confusion
  • Exaggerated, painful or scrambled senses of sound, texture, taste or smell
  • Other disorders can be associated with autism; these include mental retardation, which occurs in 75 to 80% of autism cases, as well as seizures. In addition, people with autism can also have unusual abilities, such as a genius-level memorization. However, these instances are very rare.

What are the Treatments for Autism?

Treatment options are growing and research has identified some helpful approaches and interventions.

The symptoms of autism are normally first noticed by parents. It is important that parents do not write the symptoms off as a child merely being slow to develop. The sooner a child gets treatment, the more progress that child can make.

A specialist can accurately make a diagnosis, especially since other disorders such as hearing loss or speech problems can mirror the symptoms of autism and vice-versa. A specialist will closely observe and evaluate a child’s language and social behavior, then recommend a course of treatment.

One course of treatment is a developmental approach. Children or adults are placed in programs that build on their interests, offer a predictable schedule, teach tasks in simple steps and actively engage their attention. Great strides in learning can be made in these types of programs.

Another is the behaviorist approach. Those with autism are rewarded each time they attempt or perform a new skill. When they are rewarded, they are likely to perform that skill more often. With enough practice, they can eventually acquire the skill.
There is no medication currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat autism. However, some approved medications have been found to treat the symptoms. Some anti-depressants have been effective in diminishing the distraught and aggressive behaviors found in those with autism. Medications that treat obsessive-compulsive disorder have been effective in cutting down on the repetitive behaviors often associated with the disorder. More research continues to be done in this area.

A compilation of treatment efforts from individual therapy, to medications, and especially parents’ at-home support have been found to work most effectively.

How Common is Autism?

Autism affects about one or two people in every thousand and is three to four times more common in boys than girls. Girls with the disorder, however, tend to have more severe symptoms and lower intelligence.

Additional Resources:

National Institutes of Mental Health
Autism Society of America
Cure Autism Now Foundation
National Alliance for Autism Research

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