Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. It’s the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Individuals with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, leisure, or play activities and find it hard to relate to the outside world. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behaviour may be present. Individuals 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 sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Autism has been estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 68 children, or 1 in 44 boys.
Types of Autism
Individuals who fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder category exhibit common traits in communication and social deficits, but differ in terms of severity, number of symptoms or age of onset. There is no standard “type” or “typical” person with autism.
Autistic DisorderImpairments in social interaction, communication, and imaginative play prior to age 3 years. Stereotyped behaviours, interests and activities.
Asperger’s DisorderImpairments in social interactions and the presence of restricted interests and activities, with no clinically significant general delay in language, and testing in the range of average to above average intelligence.
Pervasive Developmental DisorderCommonly referred to as atypical autism, a diagnosis of PDD may be made when a child does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis, but there is a severe impairment in specified behaviours.
Rett’s DisorderA progressive disorder which, to date, has occurred only in girls. They have a period of normal development and then loss of previously acquired skills, loss of purposeful use of the hands replaced with repetitive hand movements beginning at the age of 1-4 years.
Childhood Disintegrative DisorderCharacterized by normal development for at least the first 2 years, followed by significant loss of previously acquired skills. 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 behaviours, children and adults can exhibit any combination of the behaviours in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.
What Causes Autism?
Researchers from all over the world are searching for the answer. They 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.
How is Autism Diagnosed?
There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. An accurate diagnosis must be based on observation of the individual’s communication, behaviour and developmental levels. Since many of the behaviours associated with autism are shared by other disorders, various medical tests may be ordered to rule out or identify other possible causes of the symptoms. The characteristics of a disorder vary so much, that a child should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team which may include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist or learning consultants. Diagnosis is difficult for a practitioner with limited training or exposure to autism. Difficulties in the recognition and acknowledgment of autism often lead to a lack of services to meet the complex needs of individuals with autism.
What are the Most Effective Approaches?
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. Due to the spectrum nature of autism and the many behaviour 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 behaviour analysis, auditory integration training, dietary interventions, discrete trial teaching, medications, music therapy, occupational therapy, PECS, physical therapy, sensory integration, speech/language therapy, communication and social skills training and TEACCH.
Is There a Cure?
Understanding of autism has grown tremendously since it was first described by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. In the medical sense, there is no cure for the differences in the brain, which result in autism. However, better understanding of the disorder has led to the development of better coping mechanisms and strategies for the various manifestations of the disability. Some of these symptoms may lessen as the child ages; others may disappear altogether. With appropriate intervention, many of the associated behaviours can be positively changed, even to the point in some cases, that the child or adult may appear to the untrained person to no longer have autism. The majority of children and adults will, however, continue to exhibit some manifestations of autism to some degree throughout their entire lives.