What Is Autism?

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder. This means it becomes apparent in early childhood and affects all aspects of a child’s development. The word Autism was first used as a diagnosis in 1943, by Dr. Leo Kanner (Kanner, 1943) of Maryland’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, after studying 11 children he diagnosed to have early infantile Autism. According to the Center for Disease Control, one in 150 8-year-old children in the United States have been diagnosed with Autism. Autism is growing at a rate of 10 to 17 percent a year (Autism Society of America) and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

A diagnosis of Autism is given when three specific areas of development are significantly affected. These three areas are known as the “triad of impairments”. They are: social development, communication and repetitious behaviors and restricted interests (American Psychological Association, 1994, World Health Organizations, 1994). More specifically, people with Autism tend to be challenged by the ability to understand another’s perspective or even attribute mental states to other people (often knows as mind-blindness or lack of Theory of Mind) and may display a lack of empathy. Communication challenges may range from no use of language to the lack of ability to have fluid, creative conversations. Repetitious behaviors (often referred to as “stims”) may be patterns of motor movements (fine or gross motor), repeated verbal lines (often called “scripting”) or involve unusual sensory stimulations (e.g. spinning or dropping objects or watching movement). Other people with Autism may have more usual interests but have an unusually restricted range of interests or become obsessive about a few interests. These developmental differences tend to become apparent between 18 and 36 months of age (see First Signs of Autism).

People with Autism can be characterized not only by these areas of challenge but also by significant areas of strength. Many people with Autism are superior at what is known as systemizing, that is, “the drive to analyze objects and events, to understand their structure and predict their future behavior” (Baron-Cohen, 2005, pp. 110). This may be exhibited as an intense interest in train time-tables, for example, or an almost intuitive sense of how to program a computer. Other cognitive patterns have emerged through research. For example, people with Autism tend to show an above-average awareness of details and ability to segment stimuli (e.g. Happe, 1999). Some people with Autism have superior abilities in discrete areas such as mathematics, music or art (often referred to as islets of ability).

Autism is a spectrum disorder, now more commonly referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This means there is a wide variety of severity of Autism. Some people with ASD are highly verbal and conversational while others may not use any verbal forms of communication. Similarly, some people with ASD are very withdrawn from all forms of social interaction while others have families and jobs. People with ASD test as having a wide range of IQs (see The Autism Spectrum).

ASD has traditionally been thought of as a psychological or behavioral disorder. Some early theorists assumed it to be caused by emotionally withdrawn parenting (i.e. “refrigerator mothers” Bettelheim, 1967). This idea was long ago discredited. A diagnosis of ASD is still made on the basis of behavioral observation. There is currently no genetic, chemical or neurological test for Autism although all of these things have been shown to be instrumental in the etiology of the disorder (see Possible Causes). There is now a lot of evidence that ASD is primarily a neurobiological disorder. That is, that the characteristic social, communicative and repetitious behaviors from which the disorder is diagnosed are the developmental consequences of a brain that is fundamentally wired and organized differently (e.g. Baron-Cohen, 2005). To date however, there is not clear, agreed-upon cause of Autism. Consequently approaches to treatment can vary widely (see Autism Treatment).

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