What is autism
Autism is part of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). ASDs are developmental disorders that are characterized by deficits in verbal and non-verbal social communication (a) and social interaction (b) and by restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities (c) (APA, 2013). They may, also, exhibit sensory disturbance and Learning Difficulties. Autistic disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger Syndrome are all under the umbrella of ASD. Asperger’s syndrome usually refers to highly verbal, near-normal autistic child. The word Autism derives from the Greek word autós (αὐτός, meaning “self”) and “ism”, a word ending which refers to a state.
a. Social communication
People with autism:
- Have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm and facial expression of others.
- Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say.
- About 40% of children with autism do not speak. About 25%–30% of children with autism have some words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood.
- Autistic people will usually understand more of what other people say to them, than they are able to express.
- Others may prefer to use alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols. Some autistic people are able to communicate very effectively without speech.
- Other autistic people will have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.
- It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way and give people on the autism spectrum time to process what has been said to them.
b. Social Interaction
People with autism:
- Often have difficulty guessing, recognising or understanding other people’s emotions, feelings and thoughts.
- They may appear to behave ‘strangely’ or inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially.
- Difficulties with social interaction can mean that people with autism find it hard to form friendships: some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to do this.
- They may have difficulties with Social imagination (which allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour). Difficulties with social imagination should not be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative and may be, for example, accomplished artists, musicians or writers.
c. Restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests
- Repetitive behaviour in people with autism is not the same as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which is an anxiety disorder in which people experience repetitive thoughts and behaviours that are upsetting to them.
- Repetitive behaviour may include arm- or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements.
- They may also exhibit repetitive use of an object, such as flicking a rubber band or twirling a piece of string, or repetitive activities involving the senses (such as repeatedly feeling a particular texture).
- These behaviours may provide structure, order and predictability, and help autistic people cope with the uncertainties of daily life, feel relaxed and happy.
- People with autism, can have difficulty with more than one sensory input at a time and thus they face difficulties with sounds, lights, smells and touch by others.
- They can, also, have difficulty in coping.
- Autistic people may have Learning Difficulties, which affects all aspects of someone’s life, from studying in school, to learning how to wash themselves or make a meal.
- People can have different ‘degrees‘ of learning disability, so some will be able to live fairly independently while others may require lifelong, specialist support.
- However, all people with autism learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all autistic people can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
- Other conditions are sometimes associated with autism. These may include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or specific Learning Difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
What causes autism?
- The cause of autism remains unknown. However, research suggests that a combination of factors – genetic and environmental – may account for differences in development.
- Some studies suggest a neurological problem that affects those parts of the brain that process language and information provided by the senses.
- Perhaps there is an imbalance of some specific neurochemicals in the brain. Genetic factors can sometimes be involved.
- It has been shown that there is no causal link between the attitudes and actions of parents and the development of autism spectrum; it is not caused by a person’s upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.
Prevalence & Comorbidity
- The rate of autism has steadily grown over the last twenty years.
- Its prevalence is not affected by race, nationality, region, or socio-economic status.
- Autism is diagnosed 4 times more often in boys than girls. It now affects 1 in 68 children.
- Comorbid conditions often associated with autism include Fragile X, allergies, asthma, epilepsy, bowel disease, gastrointestinal/digestive disorders, persistent viral infections, PANDAS, feeding disorders, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, OCD, sensory integration dysfunction, sleeping disorders, immune disorders, autoimmune disorders, and neuroinflammation.
Is there a cure?
- At present, there is no ‘cure’ for autism. However, there is a huge range of interventions of enabling learning and development of children with autism, such as behavioural, medical, developmental, family-based, therapy-based interventions, as well as combinations of them that have been tailored to the particular needs of the child.
- For more information and everything you need to know about the types of interventions for children with ASD, you can visit the following website: http://raisingchildren.net.au/autism.
- Most interventions are aimed at helping children with autism. While children with autism are not ‘curable’ they can be helped, especially if their autism is diagnosed early in life. Early identification helps specialists and parents to apply the right intervention as soon as possible. Thus, keep an eye out for early signs.
- However, since autism is a ‘spectrum’ disorder it affects different people in different ways. It is therefore very difficult to generalise about how a person with autism will develop over time. It is particularly important to realise that an intervention which works well with one individual may not be appropriate or effective with another.
Signs and diagnosis
- The image of children with autism does not differ from that of normal children, they look healthy and beautiful.
- Parents often report that they began to worry around the second and before the third birthday of their children.
- Signs that made them worry may be the lack of eye contact, strange reaction to hug and caress, delayed speech or insistence with objects, isolation, no interest in other children or playing with them.
Signs of autism
Early signs of Autism in Babies
Some common symptoms of Autism in Toddlers (age 2 to 5 years)
If you want to know more about autism:
1. Watch the following video, where an autistic boy takes us on a journey through his world and explains autism along the way.
2. Read books related to autism. Here is an online list with excellent choices of books about autism.
These are my personal suggestions:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a mystery novel writen by the British writer Mark Haddon. The writer, through the eyes of an autistic boy, gives us an understanding of what autism is and how a person with autism thinks and sees the world.
Daniel Isn’t Talking By Marti Leimbach, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday
Stephen and Melanie Marsh have two kids: Emily, 4, and Daniel, 3. For the most part, they lead a typical life in London, but their world is shattered when Daniel is diagnosed with autism. Melanie becomes determined to teach Daniel how to speak and play “normally,” all while life gets more difficult and destroys her marriage. Andy, a speech therapist, starts working with Daniel and shows the Marshes that he has limitless potential.
3. Watch TedTalks related to autism:
Temple Grandin:The world needs all kinds of minds
Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.
4. Watch autism-related movies: Here are is a list of my suggestions.
5. Visit the following websites:
The ESENG – Expat Special Educational Needs Group (Netherlands)
American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5TM. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
The National Autistic Society: http://www.autism.org.uk/about.aspx
National Autism Association: http://nationalautismassociation.org/resources/autism-fact-sheet/
Remember: Autism is NOT a DESEASE!