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. One should keep in mind however, that autism is a spectrum disorder and it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees - this is why early diagnosis is so crucial. By learning the signs, a child can begin benefiting from one of the many specialized intervention programs.
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.”
The five disorders under PDD are:
Each of these disorders has specific diagnostic criteria which been outlined in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).
Diagnosis: ASDs are behaviorally defined and diagnosed. The three hallmark impairments in autism are: social interaction, communication and behavior. In Asperger’s Disorder, social communication and the pragmatic use of language are affected, but it does not typically involve delays in the development of communication skills. PDD-NOS involves a combination of characteristics that are similar to autism and Asperger’s Disorder but do not exactly match the criteria. Developmental and symptom patterns among individuals with an ASD can be quite variable. Each individual with ASD is unique.
Onset: Autism is usually diagnosed in the first three years of life. Asperger’s Disorder and PDD-NOS may be diagnosed years later. For example, when a child enters school, social difficulties and delays may become more apparent.
Gender: ASDs are more common in males than females by a ratio of approximately 4:1.
Prevalence: ASDs affect approximately 1 in 88 individuals, (1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls), nationwide in families of all racial, ethnic and social-economic backgrounds.
Associated Medical Problems: Approximately one third of individuals with autism develop a seizure disorder in early childhood (around age 5) or in early adolescence. The prevalence of seizures in individuals with Asperger’s Disorder and PDD-NOS is unknown.
Cognitive Ability: Many individuals with autism learn more slowly than their peers. Currently, the specific percentage of individuals with mental retardation is under question. Researchers estimate that the majority of individuals with autism and the minority of those with Asperger’s Disorder and PDD-NOS meet these criteria. It is important to note a few things. First, accurately assessing the IQ of individuals with ASDs can be difficult, especially with young children and those with significant communication impairment. Second, results from assessments completed before and after an individual has participated in intervention may differ dramatically. Finally, an IQ score is only a snapshot of a person’s abilities. Therefore, all individuals deserve every opportunity to learn and reach their fullest potential.
Cause: While research into the causes of these disorders advances our understanding of ASDs as biologically-based disorders, as of this writing, no consistent biological markers have been identified. In the 1960’s, some believed that negative interactions between the parents and the child were the cause of ASDs. However, current research suggests that there are no factors in the child’s psychological environment that cause ASDs.
Prognosis: Individuals with ASDs live a normal lifespan. There is no cure for ASDs but they are treatable. Early diagnoses and appropriate intervention are vital to the future development of the child. Outcome research strongly suggests that the behavioral treatment approach known as Applied Behavior Analysis offers the most education benefit.