Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. It is part of a group of pervasive developmental disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) that significantly affects how a person perceives the world, interacts with others, and communicates. As its name implies, ASD is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and with varying degrees of severity.
While ASD is typically diagnosed in children, it is a lifelong disorder that affects individuals of all ages. There is no known single, specific cause of autism. In some families there does appear to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities – which suggests there is a genetic basis to the disorder – although no single gene has been directly linked to autism. Research today seems to indicate that the basis for autism does indeed lie in both genetics and in environmental health, with no single underlying cause, but rather causative factors that come into play differently for each individuals.
IS THERE MORE THAN ONE TYPE OF AUTISM?
Yes. There are five disorders that are grouped under the broad heading of “Pervasive Developmental Disorder” or PDD: Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger’s Disorder (or Asperger’s Syndrome), Rett’s Disorder, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. See the Austim Society of East Tennessee’s website for a description of each disorder (www.asaect.org).
WHAT ARE PEOPLE WITH AUTISM LIKE?
Each individual with autism is unique and may demonstrate markedly different behaviors and skills. The following information provides an overview of some common characteristics seen in children with autism.
Speech – Speech is likely to develop much more slowly than is the norm. Speech may remain absent, or appear in the small child and vanish by the age of four. Speech may include peculiar patterns or intonations.
Social Interaction – Most often noticeable is the failure to form social bonds. The child who has autism may not follow the parents or other children around the house—or may cling to them. He may not go to others for comfort when hurt. The autistic child often avoids eye contact, resists being picked up, and does not seem to “tune in” to the world around him/her.
Sensory Differences – The child who has autism may not react the same way to a variety of environmental stimuli. He may not respond to cold or heat—or over-respond. The child may exhibit hypersensitivity to light, noises, touch, smells, and tastes.
Peak Skills – The child who has autism may have peak skills, scattered things that he does quite well, such as computations in math, drawing or music, or memory of data, whether trivial or important. At the same time, he may not be able to discuss the weather or easily comprehend what he has read. A child with autism may not initiate play with other children. The child may prefer to be left alone. There is a lack of imitation of other children or adults.
Need for Sameness and Routine – Such a child may throw a tantrum that lasts for hours because the seating was changed in the family car. Or he may engage in stereotyped behavior, such as flicking or flapping a hand, lining up toys, drawing the same picture or seeking repeatedly to do what he is unable to do.
Behavioral Problems – Children with autism can be very passive or hyperactive. They may also demonstrate obsessive interests in objects or activities. Aggression towards others or themselves is a possibility. Generally, people with autism prefer to maintain certain routines and may respond negatively when a routine is changed or disrupted.
COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN WITH AUTISM
Children with autism usually exhibit at least half of the traits listed below. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary in intensity from symptom to symptom. The behavior usually occurs across many different situations and is consistently inappropriate for their age.
• Insistence on sameness; resists changes in routine
• Severe language deficits
• Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
• Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language)
• Laughing, crying, or showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
• Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
• Tantrums – displays extreme distress for no apparent reason
• Difficulty in mixing with other children
• May not want cuddling or act cuddly
• Little or no eye contact
• Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
• Sustained odd play
• Spins objects or self
• Inappropriate attachment to objects
• Apparent oversensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
• No real fear of dangers
• Noticeable physical overactivity or extreme under-activity
• Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range
• Uneven gross/fine motor skills (May not kick a ball but can stack blocks.)
If your child is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it may be an indication that additional developmental testing is needed. Please don’t delay – early intervention is the key to a child’s successful development!