Definition of Autism

AUTISM OVERVIEW
If you or someone you know has been affected by Autism, you know how difficult it can be. But also know there is help available and a wealth of information out there to help make living with Autism more fulfilling. Autism falls under the "Pervasive Developmental Disorders", or PDD (more on this later) is not that uncommon - it is estimated that nearly 1 in 150 births result in some form of Autism. According the the U.S. Department of Education, this number is on the rise. Autism is around 4 times more likely to occur in boys than girls.


DEFINITION OF AUTISM
Autism is defined by the Autism Society Of America (ASA) as: "Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.


Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development."


CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTISM
Most signs or characteristics of Autism are evident in the areas of speech or communication (verbal and non-verbal). Many of the signs or symptoms of Autism begin presenting themselves between 2 and 6 years of age.


The research indicates the following symptoms are the most commonly found characteristics of Autism:
The child is unable to coo by 12 months.
The child also does not point or gesture by 12 months.
The child does not say single words by 16 months.
The child does not say 2 or more words by 24 months.
Has lost some of social skills or language abilities.


Other Characteristics include:
No fear of danger.
Over or under sensitivity to pain.
May avoid eye contact with you.
May prefer to be by him/herself.
Has difficulty expressing what they want or need - may then try to use gestures.
May echo words or phrases.
May have inappropriate attachments to objects.
May spin his/herself or objects.
Prolonged repetitive play.
May insist on things/routines always being the same.
May exhibit inappropriate laughing (laughing when not appropriate to the situation).
May display tantrums for no apparent reason.
May avoid cuddling.
May exhibit self injurious behavior when upset i.e. biting selves or banging heads.
An overall difficulty interacting with others.


If you see the above symptoms, you should consult with your doctor and a Psychologist before drawing your own conclusions. An important note here - I stress that it's also important to see a Psychologist, or a Speech Therapist, and not just take the word of your doctor or PCP. Although medical doctors are very well trained, a Psychologist and/or Speech Pathologist have specific training in Autism and other Developmental disorders and may have a better understanding of Autism and how to treat it. However, having said that - it's best to START by seeing your doctor to rule out any other medical conditions and to get their clinical opinion initially.


For many treatment programs, it is a collective effort of many different professional disciplines ie. medical doctor, psychologist, occupational therapist, Counselor - all with specific training with Autism. Again - check with your doctor about all of your options.


CAUSES OF AUTISM
The research indicates that the cause of Autism is likely biological, but this may not be the only cause. Evidence has shown that 1 in 3 people diagnosed with Autism have had around 1-2 epileptic seizures by the time they reach adulthood. Also, Autism tends to run in families, pointing to a possible genetic cause. And autopsies of the brain have shown deficits in various parts of the brain (i.e. cerebellum, frontal lobes, brain stem). Scientists have also found abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as Serotonin.


TYPES OF AUTISM
These are the most common disorders, all presenting in a somewhat similar manner, but having slight variations:
Autistic Disorder - As stated above, and defined by the Autism Society of America (ASA): "Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.


Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development."


Pervasive Developmental Disorder (P.D.D) - Also called "Atypical Autism." Children with this disorder have many of the same characteristics of Autism, but not all the criteria associated with Autism.


Asperger's Disorder - Children with this disorder do not have the usual language barriers associated with Autism and are generally very intelligent. However, they do tend to struggle with social interactions, and can fixate on a particular object or subject they take an interest in, and talk about it constantly.


Retts Disorder - Retts is rather similar to Autism, but presents only in girls. The children begin to develop on target, but then begin losing some communication abilities. The symptoms of Retts can begin to occur between ages 1 and 4.


AUTISM OVER TIME
The symptoms of Autism tend to lessen as people grow older. Or, perhaps the symptoms may present in different forms. For example, children diagnosed with Autism during their early childhood years may exhibit different problems once they reach their teen years ie. depression or other behavioral problems. Other children with Autism may show very few symptoms of it when they reach their teen and adult years. Therefore, treatments may need to be changeable over time, depending on the individual.


AUTISM TREATMENTS
Currently there is no known cure for Autism. The disorder is treated by working to change the symptoms of Autism ie. helping to improve the person's ability to communicate and cope with the symptoms and deal with the repetitive behaviors.


Also, some medications have also been helpful in alleviating some of the symptoms associated with Autism. Your doctor or Psychiatrist will decide which medicine to prescribe for Autism. Your doctor should also help guide the course of treatment and consider incorporating other professional disciplines since this seems to be the most effective strategy in managing Autism.


The combined use of various therapies and medications is the most common way of treating Autism. However, some people prefer not to use medications and use therapy only. Others may use medications exclusively. There are many other therapies being studied now but, unless these treatments have been tested scientifically, it is best to proceed with caution before trying any new treatment for Autism.


Although the available treatments generally target just the symptoms of Autism, the results have been favorable in helping the Autistic child better learn to communicate and manage his symptoms. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has the most comprehensive information about Autism and it's treatments. It can be found at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/autism/complete-publication.shtml#pub4.


AUTISM RESOURCES
I've listed a few of the best and most comprehensive links which discuss Autism at length. They are located on side of the page. I've also included links to some proven treatment programs as well. I hope you find the needed information you are seeking about Autism and it's treatments. Autism can be a difficult disorder to live with, but it's by no means unmanageable with persistence and proper treatment.


ONLINE AUTISM SUPPORT RESOURCE
I found another website which has an excellent forum for parents who want more information, and a chance to have a more interactive way of getting their questions answered. It's at the "About" website. After perusing through it, I was impressed with it - especially since it's answered by a trained Professional familiar with Autism. I've included the link here and on the right side of the page for your convenience. It is http://autism.about.com/mpboards.htm. I hope this is helpful.


LIVING WITH AUTISM
I found a wonderful story of a man living with Autism, now attending college. It has great information about Autism and what parents can do. It can be found at NPR (National Public Radio) at www.npr.org. For parents, this is an inspiring story.


INFORMATION ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS
Perhaps you're not even sure your child or loved one has Autism and simply want to talk further about it. There is a wonderful educational and support resource for family members of those suffering from mental illness. It's called NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Autism is a Developmental Disorder not a major mental illness such as Depression, Schizophrenia but NAMI will still provide excellent resources on the topic.


In my work as a Counselor, I have given information about NAMI to many families. It's an excellent all around resource for families to tap into if you're simply wanting to find out more about mental illness and to see what resources are available in your geographic area. I've placed the link in the margin for you to check out. From the national website, you can find a NAMI organization in your area. Or, you can also call NAMI at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). NAMI consists of people who have loved ones with a mental illness and will know first hand what you're going through. I highly recommend checking it out - and it's free!