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What is Autism?

What is Autism?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "autism (also known as Autistic Disorder) is a brain disorder that typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment. Some people with autism are relatively high-functioning, with speech and intelligence intact. Others are mentally retarded, mute, or have serious language delays. For some, autism makes them seem closed off and shut down; others seem locked into repetitive behaviors and rigid patterns of thinking." (Source: NIMH Pamphlet: Autism. NIH Publication No. 97-4023)

A child or adult with autism will have problems interacting with people (may avoid eye-contact, may not imitate others, may not use gestures, may prefer to be alone, may not understand social cues). A child or adult with autism will have problems communicating (may not speak, language may be delayed, may be unable to initiate or maintain a conversation, language may be unusual or odd, may repeat what others say, may be unable to use their imagination in play). A child or adult with autism may show restricted, repetitive, or ritualistic behaviors, interests, and activities (may be preoccupied with a narrow range of interest, may insist on sameness, may line toys up in the same way time after time, may flap hands, may spin self or objects, may rock, may be upset if the routine changes in any way, may focus on only a small part of a toy or object).

Autism and related conditions have been estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 500 individuals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1997 - but current estimates place the incidence at 1 in 150). Autism is four times more likely to affect boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence. Autism was once thought to be caused by faulty parenting, however, this has been proven to be absolutely false. Autism is not caused by faulty parenting, abuse, neglect, or other childhood trauma. Nationally, the rates of children being diagnosed with autism is increasing dramatically. For example, in California the number of persons with autism served through the state Department of Developmental Services went from 2,778 in 1987 to 10,360 in 1998 - a 273 percent increase! There is no known cause of autism and, at this time, there is no cure. However, there are treatments for autism. The most researched and effective method of treatment for autism is behavior modification. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), and other methods that use positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors and do not reinforce inappropriate behaviors, have proven to be very helpful in teaching children and adults with autism. Structuring the classroom and other learning settings is also very important. Some medications have proven to be helpful. Nutritional interventions (to include vitamin supplements and the gluten-free, casein-free diet) have been helpful with some children. Researchers are actively seeking the causes of and effective treatments for autism.

The key to treating autism is early diagnosis. Some researchers believe there are signs of autism that can be detected in infancy. These early signs may include: the infant arching his or her back to avoid touch, failing to anticipate being picked up (becoming limp or stiff), and rocking and/or head-banging. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues developed the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT). They identified three key behaviors that, if not present at age 18 months, may indicate early signs of autism. The three behaviors are: (1.) pointing at something in the environment to bring it to the attention of another person. (2.) looking at an object when another person looks and points it out. (3.) pretend play (for example, "drinking" imaginary tea from a cup). The researchers found that if an 18-month old child consistently failed the three items, there was an 83% chance that the child would be labeled autistic in future testing.

According to a 25-member panel of researchers from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Academy of Pediatrics, special attention is recommended if a child isn’t: babbling by 12 months, pointing or using gestures by 12 months, using single words by 16 months, using spontaneous two-word phrases by 2 years. Special attention also is advised for young children showing any loss of language or social skills. The panel recommended that a child meeting any of these early criteria should be referred immediately for an autism screening and other developmental tests rather than waiting.

Over one half million people in the U.S. today have autism or a related disorder. Its prevalence rate makes autism one of the most common developmental disabilities. Yet 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. If your child shows any of the symptoms of autism mentioned here or shows any delay or loss of normal developmental skills, contact your local early intervention program, your local health department, or your family physician or pediatrician. For more information on autism and other disabilities, contact The Autism Collaboration or call the Autism Society of America at 1-800-328-8476.

By the way, if you are interested in going to the original source, you may find this Brazilian web site fascinating: The Association of Friends of the Autistic has published Dr. Leo Kanner's complete article, Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact. Dr. Kanner originally described autism in 1943, it's amazing how similar his observations are to what we see in the kids with autism of today.  

Other Autism Definitions

Please send questions, comments, & suggestions to: Gary J. Heffner.

DISCLAIMER: This site is intended to provide basic information resources on Autistic Disorder. It is not intended to, nor does it, constitute medical or other advice. The author of the web site is not a medical doctor. Readers are warned not to take any action with regard to medical treatment or otherwise based on the information on this web site or links without first consulting a physician. This web site does not necessarily endorse any of the information obtained from any of the links on this page or links that other pages may lead you to. Neither does this web site promote or recommend any treatment, therapy, institution or health care plan. The information contained in this site is intended to be for your general education and information only and not for use in pursuing any treatment or course of action. Ultimately, the course of action in treating a given patient must be individualized after a thorough discussion with the patient's physician(s) and family.