Autism is a severe developmental disability that generally begins at birth or within the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that changes the way the brain functions — causing delays or problems in many different skills from infancy to adulthood. For example, both children and adults with autism usually exhibit difficulties in social interaction as well as in verbal and non-verbal communication. They also tend to be interested in odd, repetitive, or restricted activities. While the majority of autistic children look completely normal, they differ from other children by engaging in perplexing and distressing behaviors.
Why Autism is called a Spectrum Disorder?
Autism belongs to a collection of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). A spectrum disorder is a group of disorders with similar features. While one person may have mild symptoms, another might have more severe ones. There also are differences in the nature of the symptoms themselves and when they are likely to first appear.
The three different types of autism spectrum disorders are:
- Autistic disorder (also known as “classic” autism): This is the most common condition among the ASDs. It is marked by major delays in language, difficulties with social interactions, and unusual behaviors. Some people with autistic disorder also have impaired intellectual abilities.
- Asperger syndrome: People with this syndrome display some of the milder symptoms of autistic disorder — such as social challenges and unusual behaviors. They generally do not have any delays in language or impaired intellectual abilities.
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder : Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS, also referred to as “atypical autism“). Individuals may be diagnosed with PPD-NOS if they meet some of the criteria for either autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome but not all. They typically have milder and fewer symptoms than those with autistic disorder. Symptoms may be limited to problems with language and social interaction.
Every child in autism spectrum has the following “triad of impairment”, although the degree may vary:
- Communicating verbally and non-verbally.
- Relating to others and the world around them.
- Thinking imaginatively and behaving flexibly.
All children with autism have problems with:
- Social Interaction – they way they relate to others.
- Verbal and Nonverbal Communication.
- Repetitive Behaviors or Interests.
Infants with the disorder won’t cuddle; they avoid eye contact and don’t seem to want or need physical contact or affection. They may become rigid or limp when they are held, cry when picked up, and show little interest in human contact. These children don’t smile or lift their arms in anticipation of being picked up. They form no attachment to parents and do not show any normal anxiety toward strangers. They do not learn the typical games of childhood, such as peek-a-boo.
As children with autism get older they often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. These symptoms can range from mild to severe – and will be different in different children. For instance, a child may find it easy to learn to read, but have trouble in social situations. However, with autism, each child will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of autism.
Children with autism do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child gets older (between 12 and 36 months) and starts lagging behind other children of the same age.
Some parents report the changes as taking place over a short period of time. They notice that their children suddenly start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had before. In other cases, there is a slowing in the level of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more and more noticeable over a longer period of time.
While a person with autism can have symptoms ranging from mild to severe, about 10% of these children have an extraordinary ability in one area, such as mathematics, memory, music, or art. Such children are known as “autistic savants.”
Although there are many concerns about labeling a young child with autism, the earlier the diagnosis of autism is made, the sooner actions to help the child can begin. Evidence over the last 15 years has shown that intensive early intervention in optimal educational settings for at least two years during the preschool years results in improved outcomes in most young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
While not part of autism’s official diagnostic criteria, children with autism spectrum disorders often suffer from one or more of the following problems:
- Sensory problems Many children with autism spectrum disorders either underreact or overreact to sensory stimuli. At times they may ignore people speaking to them, even to the point of appearing deaf. However, at other times they may be disturbed by even the softest sounds. Sudden noises such as a ringing telephone can be upsetting, and they may respond by covering their ears and making repetitive noises to drown out the offending sound. Children in the autism spectrum also tend to be highly sensitive to touch and to texture. They may cringe at a pat on the back or the feel of certain fabric against their skin.
- Emotional difficulties Children with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty regulating their emotions or expressing them appropriately. For instance, your child may start to yell, cry, or laugh hysterically for no apparent reason. When stressed, he or she may exhibit disruptive or even aggressive behavior (breaking things, hitting others, or harming him or herself). The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities also notes that kids with autism may be unfazed by real dangers like moving vehicles or heights, yet be terrified of harmless objects such as a stuffed animal.
- Uneven cognitive abilities The autism spectrum disorders occur at all intelligence levels. However, even kids with normal to high intelligence often have unevenly developed cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, verbal skills tend to be weaker than nonverbal skills. In addition, children with Autism spectrum disorders typically do well on tasks involving immediate memory or visual skills, while tasks involving symbolic or abstract thinking are more difficult.