Autism is a developmental disability usually appearing within the first three years of life. It is not classified as a specific disease, but a disorder of brain development with debilitating symptoms primarily in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. According to the Autism Society of America, children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1,500,000 Americans currently have autism or some form of pervasive developmental disorder, making autism one of the most common developmental disorders. Currently, there is no cure for autism.
What causes autism?
Although much research has been devoted to finding the answer to this question, no specific cause is known. The ASA states that current research links autism to biological and neurological differences in the brain. There does appear to be a genetic basis to the disorder because of the pattern of autism and related disabilities in families. However, no gene has been directly linked to autism. What researchers have found is that autism is not a mental illness; children with autism do not choose not to behave in the manner that they do, and it is not caused by poor parenting.
Characteristics of people with autism
Children with autism may develop normally through the first year. Parents may notice delays in language, play or social interaction between 18-24 months. Primary symptoms include:
- Slow language development
- Severe impairment in social skills
- Sensitivities in the five senses
- Lack of spontaneous or imaginative play
- Possible overactivity or extreme passivity
- Although children with autism may display commonalties, it is notable that the characteristics of autism vary greatly.
According to the ASA, there are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. By 18-24 months, there are usually enough signs and symptoms that parents may realize they need to get help. Autism is best diagnosed based on observation of the individual’s communication, behavior and development levels. Ideally, a team of professionals knowledgeable about autism should evaluate the child.
Studies show that individuals with autism respond well to a highly structured, specialized educational programs tailored to their needs. No single program or treatment will benefit all individuals with autism. Beware of con artists and treatment programs sounding too good to be true. Focus on the Family’s vice president of medical outreach, Dr. Walt Larimore, says that it is best for parents to educate themselves on all options. Additionally, speak with other families with autistic children about what did and did not work for them. Do not be afraid to talk with your pediatrician about options that you would like to try.