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 functioning of the brain, autism and its associated behaviors have been estimated to occur in as many as 2 to 6 in 1,000 individuals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2001). Autism is four times more prevalent in 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 impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties 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. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism may exhibit repeated body movements (hand flapping, rocking), unusual responses to people or attachments to objects and resistance to changes in routines. Individuals may also experience sensitivities in the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
Autism is a spectrum disorder. In other words, the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults can exhibit any combination of the behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.
Therefore, there is no standard "type" or "typical" person with autism. Parents may hear different terms used to describe children within this spectrum, such as: autistic-like, autistic tendencies, autism spectrum, high-functioning or low-functioning autism, more-abled or less-abled. More important to understand is, whatever the diagnosis, children can learn and function productively and show gains from appropriate education and treatment. The Autism Society of America provides information to serve the needs of all individuals within the spectrum.
Researchers from all over the world are devoting considerable time and energy into finding the answer to this critical question. Medical researchers are exploring different explanations for the various forms of autism. Although a single specific cause of autism is not known, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain. In many families there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities— which suggests there is a genetic basis to the disorder—although at this time no gene has been directly linked to autism. The genetic basis is believed by researchers to be highly complex, probably involving several genes in combination.
Several outdated theories about the cause of autism have been proven to be 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.
Children within the pervasive developmental disorder spectrum often appear relatively normal in their development until the age of 24-30 months, when parents may notice delays in language, play or social interaction. Any of the following delays, by themselves, would not result in a diagnosis of a pervasive developmental disorder. Autism is a combination of several developmental challenges.
The following areas are among those that may be affected by autism:
language develops slowly or not at all; uses words without attaching the usual meaning to them; communicates with gestures instead of words; short attention span;
spends time alone rather than with others; shows little interest in making friends; less responsive to social cues such as eye contact or smiles;
may have sensitivities in the areas of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste to a greater or lesser degree;
lack of spontaneous or imaginative play; does not imitate others' actions; does not initiate pretend games;
may be overactive or very passive; throws tantrums for no apparent reason; perseverates (shows an obsessive interest in a single item, idea, activity or person); apparent lack of common sense; may show aggression to others or self; often has difficulty with changes in routine.
Evidence shows that early intervention results in dramatically positive outcomes for young children with autism. While various pre-school models emphasize different program components, all share an emphasis on early, appropriate, and intensive educational interventions for young children. Other common factors may be: some degree of inclusion, mostly behaviorally-based interventions, programs which build on the interests of the child, extensive use of visuals to accompany instruction, highly structured schedule of activities, parent and staff training, transition planning and follow-up. Because of the spectrum nature of autism and the many behavior combinations which can occur, no one approach is effective in alleviating symptoms of autism in all cases. Various types of therapies are available, including (but not limited to) applied behavior analysis, auditory integration training, dietary interventions, discrete trial teaching, medications, music therapy, occupational therapy, PECS, physical therapy, sensory integration, speech/language therapy, TEACCH, and vision therapy.
Studies show that individuals with autism respond well to a highly structured, specialized education program, tailored to their individual needs. A well designed intervention approach may include some elements of communication therapy, social skill development, sensory integration therapy and applied behavior analysis, delivered by trained professionals in a consistent, comprehensive and coordinated manner. The more severe challenges of some children with autism may be best addressed by a structured education and behavior program which contains a one-on-one teacher to student ratio or small group environment. However, many other children with autism may be successful in a fully inclusive general education environment with appropriate support.
Members of the ASA represent all walks of life from rural to metropolitan communities. Embracing the diversity of our group, the ASA seeks to provide an open forum for the exchange of ideas. At the very core of the ASA's philosophy is the belief that no single program or treatment will benefit all individuals with autism. Furthermore, the recommendation of what is "best" or "most effective" for a person with autism should be determined by those people directly involved—the individual with autism, to the extent possible, and the parents or family members.