What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong, neurological disorder that significantly affects how a person perceives the world, interacts with other people, and communicates.

It is often referred to as a spectrum disorder, meaning the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Autism and its associated disabilities such as Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) occur in approximately 1 out of every 59 children born today. Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries.

There is no single, specific cause of autism. 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 no single gene has been directly linked to autism.

Autism is treatable. Early diagnosis, intervention, and a system of support are vital to the future development of the child.

What Autism is Not

  • Several outdated theories about the cause of autism have been proven to be false.
  • Autism is not a mental illness
  • Autism is not the result of poor parenting
  • Children with autism are not unruly or spoiled kids who just have a behavior problem
  • The vast majority of persons with autism are not savants, like the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie
  • Children with autism are not without feelings and emotions
    Furthermore, no known psychological factors in the development of the child have been shown to cause autism.

Common Characteristics of People With Autism

Some children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrate a delay early in life while others appear to develop typically until the age of 18-30 months, when parents may notice delays or regression in language, play, or social interaction.

The following are characteristics frequently observed in people with autism:

  • Communication: Language develops slowly or not at all. May display non-speech sounds, echolalia (mimicking words without any understanding of the meaning), may communicate with gestures or behaviors instead of words. Frustration with lack of speech is common.
  • Sensory: May be very sensitive (hyper-sensitive) or very insensitive (hypo-sensitive) to sounds, textures, tastes, touch, and sights. May be unaware of various physical stimuli such as pain.
  • Social: May prefer to spend time alone rather than with others. May show lack of interest in peers, lack of eye contact, may seem unaware of others, may treat others as objects, may prefer parallel play rather than interactive play and display lack of imaginative play. May show limited understanding and responsiveness to social cues such as eye contact or smiles.
  • Behavior: May be overactive or very passive. May not be interested in being picked up or cuddled. May perseverate (show an obsessive interest in a single item, idea or person i.e. flapping hands, spinning, balancing, tiptoe walking, lining things up). May display a lack of common sense, show aggression to others or self. May be resistant to changes in routine.
  • Play: May prefer to play alone or parallel play. May lack spontaneous or imaginative play, may not initiate pretend games, may prefer to use toys in odd ways i.e. lining them up or spinning the wheels on toy cars.
  • Splinter Skills: May display great interest and/or talent in an area such as drawing, music, math, calendars, memory, computer or mechanical areas such as complex video/audio equipment.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV) names the symptoms of Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD) to produce five varieties:

  • Autistic Disorder: Impairments in social interaction, communication, and imaginative play which are usually seen by the age of 3.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): Commonly referred to as atypical autism, a diagnosis of PDD-NOS may be made when a child does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis, but there is a severe and pervasive impairment in the areas of communication, social interaction, and behavior.
  • Asperger’s Disorder: The diagnosis was intended to specify those children for whom spoken language develops on schedule, despite the fact that social communication and interaction remain problematic. It is characterized by impairments in social interactions and the presence of restricted interests and activities, with no significant delay in language and testing in the average to above average range of intelligence.
  • Rett’s Disorder: A rare, progressive disorder which occurs only in girls beginning at the age of 1-4 years. Involves a sudden onset of severe problems in language development, as well as movement disorder such as constant hand flapping or hand-wringing, after what had been a normal course of early infant development.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder: Intended as a diagnosis for children who seem to develop symptoms of social, language, and cognitive difficulties after the usual diagnostic window of 18-36 months. Occurrence is rare and normal development for at least the first 2 years is followed by a significant loss of previously acquired skills.

Autism Checklist

Individual’s with autism usually exhibit many of the traits listed below. These symptoms can range form mild to severe and may vary in intensity from symptom to symptom. In addition, the behavior usually occurs across many different situations and is consistently inappropriate for the child’s age.

  • Insistence on sameness; resists changes in routine
  • Severe language deficits
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language)
  • Laughing, crying, or showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Prefers to be alone; aloof in manner
  • Tantrums; displays extreme distress for no apparent reason
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • May not want to be touched or may not be physically affectionate
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Unresponsive to standard teaching methods
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spins objects or self
  • Inappropriate attachment to objects
  • Apparent oversensitivity or undersensitivity to pain
  • No real fear of dangers
  • Noticeable physical over activity or extreme under activity
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf even though hearing tests in normal range
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills (may not kick a ball, but can stack blocks)

** Please note this symptom list is not a substitute for a full-scale diagnostic assessment.