What is Autism ?
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Autism is a complex neurobiological
disorder that interferes with normal development in language, social
behavior. The technical term, autism spectrum
disorders (ASDs), refers to a group of developmental disorders that
are usually first diagnosed in early childhood and include: autistic
disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
and Aspergerís syndrome. It also includes two rare disorders, Rett
disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder.
Though most children with autism look
perfectly normal, they will often avoid eye contact and lack
interest in or regard for faces. Their thinking and learning
abilities vary from gifted to severely challenged. Associated
problems include hyperactivity, self-injurious behavior,
sleeplessness, eating disorders and gastrointestinal problems.
Stability and consistently administered therapeutic interventions
are critical to the child's and family's well-being.
The Autism Epidemic:
The incidence of ASDs has exploded
in the past decade with the latest studies revealing that
approximately 1 in 110 children are affected by an ASD (Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, 2009), including 1 in 70 boys. In
the early 1990s, the incidence of autism was 1 in 10,000. This
alarming rise has now given autism the undesired ranking as the most
prevalent childhood developmental disorder in the U.S. While there
is no known cause, and worse yet, no cure, we do know that autism is
likely the product of genetics and environmental factors
- What is the
definition of autism spectrum disorders?
The term "autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)" refers to a wide
range of developmental disorders and includes five
classifications. According to the National Institute of
Mental Health, these disorders are usually first diagnosed
in early childhood and range from a severe form, called
autistic disorder, through pervasive development disorder
not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), to a much milder form,
Asperger's syndrome. They also include two rare disorders,
Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.
Each of these disorders has a specific set of
characteristics used as criteria for diagnosis in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) of the American
Psychiatric Association. It is important to understand that
individuals can share common characteristics on the
spectrum, yet ASD is unique to the individual and will be
different for every person.
- What causes autism
While autism research has made great strides in the past
decade, the causes of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)
remain unknown. Family and twin studies lend support to a
genetic etiology, and other studies indicate neurobiological
differences in the anatomy and function of the brain in
individuals with autism. The Translational Genomics Research
Institute (TGen) and SARRC are currently working to find the
cause or causes of ASDs.
- Is there a cure for
autism spectrum disorders?
Today, there is no cure for ASDs. It is not possible to
"outgrow" an ASD, but it is possible to "overcome" many
symptoms of an ASD or at the very least, gain control of
difficult behaviors. With time and appropriate
interventions, individuals can learn to compensate for
deficits with new strengths and skills. There has been, and
continues to be, much progress in the treatment of ASDs.
At this point in time, no one can predict what a child with
autism will be like as an adult. However, most experts in
the field of autism research and treatment agree that early
intervention is essential and critical.
- Are there disorders
that can accompany ASD?
It is possible to be diagnosed with an ASD and also be
diagnosed with other disorders, including attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, visual
and hearing impairments, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD),
anxiety disorders, mental retardation and others. Any of
these disorders can vary from mild to severe.
It is also possible for some people to be diagnosed with an
ASD and not have mental retardation or other disorders.
A few other disorders that sometimes accompany autism
About one-third of the children with ASDs develop
seizures in early childhood or adolescence. Researchers
are trying to learn if there is any significance to the
time of onset, since the seizures often first appear
when certain neurotransmitters become inactive. Since
seizures range from brief blackouts to full-blown body
convulsions, an electroencephalogram (EEG) can help
confirm their presence. Fortunately, in most cases,
seizures can be controlled with medication.
- Fragile X:
Found in about 3 percent of people with an ASD, mostly
males, this inherited disorder is named for a defective
piece of the X-chromosome that appears pinched and
fragile when seen under a microscope. People who inherit
this faulty bit of genetic code have many of the same
symptoms as an ASD along with unusual physical features
that are not typical of ASDs.
Research shows that a relationship exists between ASDs
and Tuberous Sclerosis, which is a genetic condition
that causes abnormal tissue growth in the brain and
problems in other organs. Although Tuberous Sclerosis is
a rare disorder, occurring in less than one in 10,000
births, about a fourth of those affected are also
diagnosed with an ASD. Scientists are exploring genetic
conditions such as Fragile X and Tuberous Sclerosis to
see why they so often coincide with autism.
Understanding exactly how these conditions disrupt
normal brain development may provide insights to the
biological and genetic mechanisms of ASDs.
- What should I do
about problematic behaviors?
While it is impossible to provide a single answer to this
question that will apply to every child and every family,
there are some guidelines that parents and others can follow
in order to handle situations safely and effectively. There
may be many different functions, or reasons, some
individuals with ASD's display problematic behaviors. Due to
difficulties with communication, an individual with autism
may become easily frustrated if they are unable to
communicate with others or have trouble understanding what
When problematic behavior occurs, it is possible to find the
reason or cause for the behavior. This can be done through
establishing an understanding of behavior patterns. There is
much to be learned by paying close attention to what happens
immediately before and after a specific behavior occurs.
Once the function, or cause of the behavior, is understood
it is possible to determine an appropriate intervention plan
to change or replace the problem behavior with a more
Teaching skills that will reduce frustration, increase
communication ability and facilitate the replacement of
inappropriate behavior with appropriate alternatives can be
highly effective. However, it is important to refrain from
trying to teach these skills when an individual is upset or
engaged in a tantrum. A proactive approach will help
minimize or overcome the behavior. Some proactive and
preventative steps to take can include:
- Provide many
opportunities for the individual to make choices (e.g.,
Do you want to use crayon or marker?)
- Provide lots of
positive reinforcement and verbal praise when the
individual is not acting out
- Consider what motivates
and makes sense to the individual and use these objects
or activities to reward good behavior
- Provide structure,
routine and predictability through the use of routines,
schedules and other appropriate supports when dealing
with transitions or difficult situations
- Can adults with ASD
live independent lives?
Individuals with ASDs exhibit a wide range of variation when
it comes to their level of functioning and capability. Every
person with an ASD can learn. Some will live productive
lives with varying levels of support and others will live
independently, marry, work and raise a family. By teaching
individuals with ASDs necessary life skills from a young
age, these individuals have a greater potential to lead
largely successful lives.
- How do I know what
to do to help my child?
Because ASDs are unique to the individual, what works for
one person may not for another. Understanding the process
for gathering good information and how to use that
information in creating a program with appropriate support
and services is always the best way to get started.
Autism experts commonly agree that intervention programs
supported by solid research are an important indicator of
effectiveness. With that said, research also suggests that
because ASDs are unique to the individual, the results of
any particular study may be impacted by these individual
differences. Some approaches are controversial and can be
surrounded by passionate supporters. It is important to keep
your focus on the defining characteristics of the
individual, what is regarded as best practice and supported
by research and autism professionals, and the learning
abilities and disabilities of the individual.
A comprehensive evaluation can identify strengths and
challenges. This information is useful in creating a
comprehensive intervention program that addresses the
strengths and challenges of the individual. A comprehensive
program should include supports and services that complement
each other, are realistic for implementation, and are
accessible to the individual in the home, community and
school setting. Always work with skilled and qualified
professionals to correctly implement the program and to
monitor and change the program as the individual changes.
Varying treatment approaches exist with a wide range of
features available. There are programs with fees covered by
insurance, state and local agencies, or private pay.
SARRC recommends you consult your doctor when considering
interventions that may put the health of an individual at
- What medications
No medication can correct the brain structures or impaired
nerve connections that seem to underlie ASDs. Scientists
have found, however, that medicines developed to treat other
disorders with similar symptoms are sometimes effective in
treating the symptoms and behaviors that make it hard for
individuals with autism to function at home, school or work.
The idea of using medication as part of treatment is
something that should be discussed in great detail with your
- How do we
participate in research projects at SARRC?
SARRC has developed a research questionnaire that we
encourage all parents to complete. Information from the
questionnaire is entered into our computer database, and
assessments help guide our research and identify subjects
for studies. We urge parents to complete the questionnaire
for their typical children as well and recruit neighbors and
friends (who do not have ASDs) to complete the forms. This
provides SARRC with an essential control group for
comparative evaluations and benchmarks.
( Courtesy: Southwest Autism Research & Resource