People with autism have said that the world, to them, is a mass of people, places and events which they struggle to make sense of, and which can cause them considerable anxiety. In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life may be harder for them. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, and some people with autism may wonder why they are ‘different’.
What is autism?
What are the characteristics of autism?
The five types of autism
Who is affected by autism?
What causes autism?
Is their a cure for autism?
Types of treatment and therapy
Myths about autism
Does my child have autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects how a person communites with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.
Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests', and activities.
The three main characteristics of autism are:
- difficulty with social communication
- difficulty with social interaction
- difficulty with social imagination
Difficulty with social communication
People with autism have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They can find it difficult to use or understand:
- facial expressions or tone of voice
- jokes and sarcasm
- common phrases and sayings; an example might be the phrase “It’s cool”, which people often say when they think that something is good, but strictly speaking, means that it’s a bit cold.
It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way, and give people with autism time to process what has been said to them.
Difficulty with social interaction
People with autism often have difficulty recognizing or understanding other people’s emotions and feelings, and expressing their own, which can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially. They may:
- not understand the unwritten social rules which most of us pick up without thinking: they may stand too close to another person for example, or start an inappropriate subject of conversation
- appear to be insensitive because they have not recognized how someone else is feeling
- prefer to spend time alone rather than seeking out the company of other people
- not seek comfort from other people
- appear to behave ‘strangely’ or inappropriately, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs
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 go about this.
Difficulty with social imagination
Social imagination allows us to understand and predict other people’s behaviour, make sense of abstract ideas, and to imagine situations outside our immediate daily routine. Difficulties with social imagination mean that people with autism find it hard to:
- understand and interpret other people's thoughts, feelings and actions
- predict what will happen next, or what could happen next
- understand the concept of danger, for example that running on to a busy road poses a threat to them
- engage in imaginative play and activities: children with autism may enjoy some imaginative play but prefer to act out the same scenes each time
- prepare for change and plan for the future
- cope in new or unfamiliar situations
Difficulties with social imagination should not be confused with a lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative.
Other related characteristics
Love of routines
The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, who often prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. This routine can extend to always wanting to travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast. Rules can also be important: it may be difficult for a person with autism to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the 'right' way to do it. People with autism may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but can cope well if they are prepared for it in advance.
People with autism may experience some form of sensory sensitivity. This can occur in one or more of the five senses - sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness, it can be harder to navigate rooms avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people and carry out 'fine motor' tasks such as tying shoelaces.
Many people with autism have intense special interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. Some people with autism may eventually be able to work or study in related areas. For others, it will remain a hobby.
People with autism may have learning disabilities, which can affect all aspects of someone's life, from studying in school, to learning how to wash themselves or make a meal. As with autism, people can have different 'degrees' of learning disability, so some will be able to live fairly independently - although they may need a degree of support to achieve this - while others may require lifelong, specialist support. However, all people with autism can, and do, learn and develop with the right sort of support.
No one individual experiences autism in the same exact way. Autism is an umbrella term for a wide spectrum of disorders, sometimes referred to as “Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD)” or “Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)”.
Kanner’s Syndrome (also known as Autism)
Kanner’s Syndrome, also known as Autism, is autism in its classic form. It is defined as a neural developmental disorder and is characterized by weakened communication and social interaction and the limitation and repetitiveness of behavior. Autism is usually diagnosed by the time the child hits the age of 3. It affects information the brain processes by changing the way nerve cells and synapses are allotted to connect and be organized.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified is defined as a pervasive developmental disorder and an individual has some of the characteristics found in autism and Asperger, but because they do not fit all of the criterion for the disorders, they become diagnosed with PDD-NOS. It is commonly referred to as atypical autism because although it is autism, it is very hard for it to fall in the category of autism.
Rett Syndrome is a developmental disorder of the neurological system that affects a major component of the central nervous system, known as “grey matter” and affects females more than males. This is general characterized by small hands and feet and a deceleration of the rate of head growth. Hand movements are repetitive. Scoliosis, constipation, and the failure to grow, are also common problems with Rett.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
Similar to Rett’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is also rare. Children who have it typically appear to be normal at birth, growth occurs when it is supposed to occur, no signs of anything potentially problematic. However, at age two or four, things take a shift. Instead of progressing, the child seems to regress. They will have no desire to interact with kids and have no interest in playing. Talking will either end completely or decrease in skill from what it previously had been.
Asperger Syndrome is diagnosed by the absence of significant socialized tendencies. These characteristics include finding difficulty in social interaction and the limited and monotonous patterns of an individual’s behavior and what happens to keep their interests. Other symptoms can include clumsiness and abnormal use of jargon. Asperger differs from other ASDs because it seeks to preserve lingual and the development of cognitive capabilities.
Autism is much more common than most people think. People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can have autism, although it appears to affect more men than women.
In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This new estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than previous estimates reported in 2012 of 1 in 88 children being identified with an autism spectrum disorder.
In 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study released today that looked at data from 14 communities. Autism spectrum disorders are almost five times more common among boys than girls – with 1 in 54 boys identified. In 2009 the National Survey of Children’s Health reported that 1 in every 91 children in the U.S., ages 3 to 17, has an autism spectrum disorder. The new report is an increase from the current estimate of autism occurring in 1 in 110 children. In 2007: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that an average of 1 in 110 children in the U.S have an autism spectrum disorder.
The exact cause of autism is still being investigated. However, research suggests that a combination of factors - genetic and environmental - may account for changes in brain development. Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing, their social circumstances, and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.
There is currently no known ‘cure’ for autism, however, their are treatments to help reduce or remove autism symptoms.
Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)
Based on the principles of positive reinforcement, graduated prompting, repetition, and teaching tasks in very small, discrete steps.
Biomedical Approaches - Gluten-Free / Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet
Many families report that elimination of gluten and casein in the diet has helped with regulation of bowel habits, improved sleep, resulted in better activity levels, reduced repetitive behaviors and helped in their child’s overall progress.
Biomedical Approaches - The Defeat Autism Now! (DAN) Protocol
Medically supervised combination of changes to the diet and implementation of vitamin and supplement therapy as a means of producing changes in autistic behaviors.
Intensive Behavioral Intervention (IBI)
Discrete trial training, used in a typically one-to-one manner to teach new skills, often in association with decreasing or eliminating maladaptive behaviours, using a comprehensiveness characterized by a tremendous amount of structure and reinforcement provided at high intensity using precise teaching techniques.
It is based on the premise that the child can increase and build a larger circle of interaction with an adult who meets the child at his current developmental level and who builds on the child's particular strengths.
Occupational Therapist (OT)
Helps with an individual's ability to function in everyday life activities and occupations that provide meaning to the individual’s life.
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Augmentative and alternative communication technique where individuals with little or no verbal ability learn to communicate using picture cards.
Physical Therapists (PT)
Trained to work with people to build or rebuild strength, mobility, and motor skills.
Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)
Parent-based treatment that focuses on the core problems of gaining friendships, feeling empathy, expressing love, and being able to share experiences with others.
Social Communication and Emotional Regulation, and implementing Transactional Supports (The SCERTS®Model)
Promoting child-initiated communication in everyday activities.
Sensory Integration Therapy
To facilitate the development of the nervous system's ability to process sensory input in a more typical way.
Speech Therapy (ST)
Type of therapy that focuses on improving vocal communication and speech.
Training and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH)
Building on the fact that autistic children are often visual learners. TEACCH brings visual clarity to the learning process in order to build receptiveness, understanding, organization, and independence.
Verbal Behaviour (VB)
Getting the child to request or obtain what is wanted by any means of communication with positive reinforcement.
Autism is the result of emotional deprivation or emotional stress.
Autism is a complex developmental disability involving a biological or organic defect in the functioning of the brain.
Autism is due to parental rejection or cold, unemotional parents.
Autism has nothing whatsoever to do with the way parents bring up their children.
A person with autism cannot be educated.
With the right structured support within and outside of school, individuals with autism can be helped to reach their full potential.
People with autism look different from other people.
Autism is an invisible disability - most people with an autism spectrum disorder look just like anyone else who does not have this condition.
Autism is a childhood condition.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability with no cure. Children with autism grow up to be adults with autism.
All people with autism have are like the Dustin Hoffman character in the film Rainman.
Most people with autism don’t have genius-level intelligence or specific skills, and while they have significant difficulties that affects them in every aspect of day-to-day life, it doesn’t completely disable them. With that said, it is practically impossible to represent every aspect of somebody with autism as it is a varied condition and different with every individual case.
- Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by 1 year of age
- Does not speak one word by 16 months
- Does not combine two words by 2 years
- Does not respond to name
- Loses language or social skills
- Poor eye contact
- Doesn't seem to know how to play with toys
- Excessively lines up toys or other objects
- Is attached to one particular toy or object
- Doesn't smile
- At times seems to be hearing impaired
For more information about early detection please visit First Signs, a website dedicated to educating parents and professionals about autism and related disorders.
If you are concerned that your child may have autism, please consult your pediatrician.