Autism is the general title describing people with a complex brain disorder effecting development. Autism is formally described as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder or otherwise known as PDD. Other types of PPD include Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger Syndrome and Rett Syndrome, all classified as Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Autism Spectrum Disorders have become very prevalent, in fact according to government statistics, Autism rates have been increasing between ten and seventeen percent every year. Unfortunately it is currently estimated that in every 110 children there will be one new case of Autism diagnosed. This means Autism is currently more prevalent than childhood cancer, pediatric AIDS and juvenile diabetes combined. These staggering numbers calculate that there are currently 1.5 million people with Autism in the United States and tens of millions of cases worldwide. Due to lack of information on the disorder, there is currently no explanation as to why Autism has increased so drastically annually. Generally many medical professionals conclude that improved diagnosis has increased the numbers. Another explanation that is often used is environmental factors and influences on young bodies. Current data suggests that males are statistically more likely to develop Autism than females. This is concluded because males are diagnosed with Autism three to four times more often. The United States is currently estimated to diagnose one in every 70 boys with the disorder.
Unfortunately there is no clear explanation as to what causes Autism. In fact, the vast majority of Autism cases reported to be idiopathic. This means that the cause of the disorder is unknown. Although Autism was first explained by Dr. Leo Kannar, a psychiatrist in 1943 he had detrimental explanation as to the cause. He believed that Autism was due to poor parenting and that mothers with Autistic children were cold and unloving. This caused shame and embarrassment to families, making them fear treatment for their children. Bruno Bettelheim, the world renowned professor of child development disagreed with Kannar’s explanation. Bettelheim understood Autism to be a biological disorder. As a parent of a son with Autism, Bettelheim founded the Autism Society of America and the Autism Research Institute.
There is a more complex explanation as to the causes, though currently they are considered possibilities rather than definitive proof. As there are different levels of the disorder, with some being more severe and life altering than others, it is currently hypothesized that there are multiple possibilities of causes. The most scientific evidence leans towards this explanation, with probable causes including multiple genetic components and environmental factors. Multiple genetic components may cause a parent to transfer the gene to their child prior to them being born. Also combining environmental factors may expose the child to the disorder, whether that is ‘In utero’ or during childhood development. The timing of these environmental factors may be the difference in severity of the disorder.
Autism has also increased the study into human immune systems and its ability to regulate between the body and the brain. Piecemeal evidence from the past three decades suggests that the disorder may also involve inflammation within the central nervous system. Although this is emerging science, there has been proven links between Autism and other genetic disorders including Tuberous Sclerosis, Angelman’s Syndrome and Fragile X. There is also evidence supporting environmental agents affecting the chances a child will have Autism. Infectious agents such as Cytomegalovirus and Maternal Rubella and Chemical agents such as Valproate and Thalidomide exposed during pregnancy have also been linked to Autism cases.
Children with Autism are generally self-absorbed, unaware and unaffected by the world around them. They seem to be living in their own private space, as they may find communication and interaction incredibly difficult. Children with the disorder may find language skills and basic cognitive development to be far behind their peers. Also, non-verbal communication such as hand gestures, facial expression and eye contact may be trying if not impossible.
Although communication may be especially difficult for many cases of Autism, not every child will have a language problem. These developmental changes can vary depending on intellectual and social development. People with Autism generally have a more narrowed set of interest, which are commonly complemented with exceptional abilities. Autism often includes poor or improper nonverbal conversational skills as well as uneven language development. The most common behavior and language pattern in children with Autism include repetitive or more rigid language.
A child with Autism will often say things that seem to have little to no meaning and may be out of context. Echolalia, a condition in which children repeat a word or phrase they may have heard is very common in Autistic patients. Immediate Echolalia often occurs, where children will repeat what they hear as soon as they hear it. In these cases the child generally does not understand how to communicate their wishes; rather they repeat what they believe they are supposed to be saying. For example, if a parent of an Autistic child asks “What do you want for dinner?” the child with Immediate Echolalia would respond “What do you want for dinner?”
Autism is diagnosed according to observed behavior combined with educational and psychological testing. There is not a medical test available for the disorder, making diagnosis especially trying. As symptoms also range from person to person, the route to diagnoses can vary as well. Generally, children who seem far behind their peers can be identified with developmental delays before a diagnosis. These cases will be tested further, evaluating communication and behavioral patterns.
Parents concerned about their child’s development should see their pediatrician to ensure diagnosis is not delayed. There are currently lead and hearing exposure screenings that can be performed during a developmental evaluation. Autism-specific screening tools should be used, such as the MCHAT, the Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers. Often, the DSM-IV criteria are used for the diagnosis of Autism as well.
Managing Autism can be trying at times, though doctors recommend strategies to provide relief and assistance. For one, children with Autism appreciate routine. They like things to be the same every day, within predictable environments. Change should only happen when absolutely necessary and if there is a difference in routine, it is important to prepare the child far in advance. All activities and instructions should be given clearly and simply, with limited distractions. Visual aids may come in handy, such as pictures and flash cards throughout the home. Be consistent in praise, punishment, teaching, schedules and remember above all else to be patient.
Prognosis of Autism is dependent on the individual and the severity of the condition. Public schools are responsible for providing services for Autistic students until the age of 22. At that point, the family or the individual are responsible for the facility, employment or schooling of the patient. Independence is the most trying struggle with Autistic patients. Some adults with Autism are able to work mainstream jobs, though communication or social problems may be difficult. Others may find the task too overwhelming and may require full-time or part-time care. It is important to work with their abilities and not push or overwhelm.
For more information on Autism, consult the following links.
- Center for Autism Research and Treatment
- Center for Autism Research
- Autism Case Study
- Autism Information
- Autism Program at Yale
- ASD and PDD
- Supporting Individuals with Autism
- Koegel Autism Center
- Autism Center of Excellence
- Center for Autism and Related Disabilities
- Educating Children with Autism
- Autism Programs
- Autism Training Center
- Autism and Neurodevelopment Program
- National Autism Conference
- Seaver Autism Center
- Center for Autism and Related Disabilities
- Emory Autism Center
- Autism/Asperger’s Research Program
- Autism Project
- Understanding Autism
- Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training
- Vanderbilt Kennedy Center