Autism is a severe, lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way a person sees and interacts with the world. Autism is one of a larger group of disorders called Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) and is considered a “spectrum” disorder, which means that there is a wide range of symptoms and degrees of severity that fall under the classification of “autism.”
Autism affects 1 to 6 children per 1,000. It is about four times more common in boys than in girls. The exact cause is unknown, but there is believed to be a genetic component, as autism sometimes seems to run in families. Symptoms of autism often start to appear by the age of three, although the condition may not be diagnosed until later.
Parents may notice that their toddler does not begin to talk or does not communicate or interact normally with themselves or others. The child may seem deaf, even though hearing tests are normal, and often seems to prefer to be alone. He or she may resist attention, or accept it passively, with no apparent reaction.
Symptoms of Autism
Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it affects each patient individually and the combination and severity of symptoms vary widely from case to case. The three defining characteristics of patients with autism seem to be problems with social interactions, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and a pattern of repetitive behavior with narrow, restricted interests.
Other common symptoms include refusal to make eye contact, poor body awareness, repetition of words or phrases, repetitive body rocking, unusual attachments to objects, unmotivated tantrums, inability to express needs verbally, insensitivity to pain, and reliance on rituals and routines.
Autistic individuals often react negatively to change and may respond with tantrums, aggression, self-harm, or similar behaviors if overwhelmed. Typically, autistic individuals also lack “theory of mind,” the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and goals that are different from their own, and therefore are unable to interpret social cues that normal children would use to interpret and predict other people’s emotions and reactions. This can result in anxiety, social alienation, and frequent feelings of being overwhelmed.
About 70%; of people with autism have below-normal intelligence but interestingly, about 10%; of autistics show savant abilities, a rate much higher than the general population. These skills most often express themselves in the form of mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities.
For example, an autistic savant might be able to make lightning-fast mathematical calculations, recite long lists of words or numbers from memory, or quickly calculate the day of the week for any date stretching over a period of thousands of years. About one-third of children with autism develop a seizure disorder such as epilepsy by their teens.
Treatment of Autism
Early diagnosis and treatment of autism are important to help the child reach its full potential. Advances in treatment have allowed more and more autistic children to live independently as adults. Children with autism respond best to highly structured and specialized educational programs tailored to their individual needs.
Treatment may include behavioral training and management designed to help the child respond more normally to social cues and situations; speech, occupational, and physical therapies to help overcome the developmental delays and problems that often accompany the condition; and community support and parent training to help the parents cope successfully with the challenges of raising an autistic child.
Medication may also be prescribed, usually to deal with common side effects of the condition, such as anxiety, hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.