Autism: What is autism?

What is autism? A person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) usually has problems interacting with people (may avoid or lack eye-contact, may not imitate others, may not point or use other hand gestures, may prefer to be alone, and may not understand social cues).

A person with ASD will usually have problems communicating (may not speak at all, may be severely language delayed, may have unusual or odd speech patterns (repeat words and phrases heard by others, i.e. tv or videos, may be unable to initiate or engage in a conversation, may be unable to use their imagination during play i.e. pretending a banana is a telephone).

An individual with autism may show restricted, repetitive, or ritualistic behaviors, interests, and activities (may be preoccupied with a narrow range of interest i.e. dinosaurs, astronomy, trains or roller coasters, may insist on sameness, i.e. prefer certain clothing or eating only certain foods, may line up their toys or objects, may flap their hands, or make odd hand and body gestures, may spin or like to spin objects, may rock themselves, may be self-injurious, i.e. head banging, may anger easily or show aggression, may be resistance to change and may become angry or upset if their daily routine changes in any way, may focus on only a small part of a toy or object).

Early intervention is the key to a better life or prognosis. Autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months of age using the CHAT or Checklist for Autism in Toddlers developed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge.

"Autism itself is not the enemy... the barriers to development that are included with autism are the enemy. The retardation that springs from a lack of development is the enemy. The sensory problems that are often themselves the barriers are the enemy. These things are not part of who the child is... they are barriers to who the child is meant to be, according to the developmental blueprint. Work with the child's strengths to overcome the weaknesses, and work within the autism, not against it, to overcome the developmental barriers."

Frank Klein, autistic

What is Autism? " is usually a devastating condition for families, arguably posing more restrictions on family life than any other."

Martin Bax, M.D., Editor, Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology

What are the Autism
Spectrum Disorders?

The autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are more common in the pediatric population than are some better known disorders such as diabetes, spinal bifida, or Down syndrome. Prevalence studies have been done in several states and also in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia. [Prevalence estimates are now 1 in 150 children.] This prevalence rate points to a need for earlier and more accurate screening for the symptoms of ASD.

The earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the child can be helped through treatment interventions. Pediatricians, family physicians, daycare providers, teachers, and parents may initially dismiss signs of ASD, optimistically thinking the child is just a little slow and will "catch up."

early intervention has a dramatic impact on reducing symptoms and increasing a child's ability to grow and learn new skills, it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten.

All children with ASD demonstrate deficits in 1) social interaction, 2) verbal and nonverbal communication, and 3) repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, they will often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look.

Each of these symptoms runs the gamut from mild to severe. They will present in each individual child differently. For instance, a child may have little trouble learning to read but exhibit extremely poor social interaction. Each child will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of ASD.

Children with ASD do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags further behind other children the same age. Some other children start off well enough.

Often times between 12 and 36 months old, the differences in the way they react to people and other unusual behaviors become apparent. Some parents report the change as being sudden, and that their children start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had previously acquired.

In other cases, there is a plateau, or leveling, of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more noticeable.

ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors that can range from the very mild to the severe. The following possible indicators of ASD were identified on the Public Health Training Network Webcast, Autism Among Us.

Social Symptoms

From the start, typically developing infants are social beings. Early in life, they gaze at people, turn toward voices, grasp a finger, and even smile.

In contrast, most children with ASD seem to have tremendous difficulty learning to engage in the give-and-take of everyday human interaction. Even in the first few months of life, many do not interact and they avoid eye contact. They seem indifferent to other people, and often seem to prefer being alone. They may resist attention or passively accept hugs and cuddling. Later, they seldom seek comfort or respond to parents' displays of anger or affection in a typical way.

Research has suggested that although children with ASD are attached to their parents, their expression of this attachment is unusual and difficult to "read." To parents, it may seem as if their child is not attached at all. Parents who looked forward to the joys of cuddling, teaching, and playing with their child may feel crushed by this lack of the expected and typical attachment behavior.

Children with ASD also are slower in learning to interpret what others are thinking and feeling. Subtle social cues-whether a smile, a wink, or a grimace-may have little meaning. To a child who misses these cues, "Come here" always means the same thing, whether the speaker is smiling and extending her arms for a hug or frowning and planting her fists on her hips.

Without the ability to interpret gestures and facial expressions, the social world may seem bewildering. To compound the problem, people with ASD have difficulty seeing things from another person's perspective. Most 5-year-olds understand that other people have different information, feelings, and goals than they have. A person with ASD may lack such understanding. This inability leaves them unable to predict or understand other people's actions.

Although not universal, it is common for people with ASD also to have difficulty regulating their emotions. This can take the form of "immature" behavior such as crying in class or verbal outbursts that seem inappropriate to those around them. The individual with ASD might also be disruptive and physically aggressive at times, making social relationships still more difficult.

They have a tendency to "lose control," particularly when they're in a strange or overwhelming environment, or when angry and frustrated. They may at times break things, attack others, or hurt themselves. In their frustration, some bang their heads, pull their hair, or bite their arms.

Communication Difficulties

By age 3, most children have passed predictable milestones on the path to learning language; one of the earliest is babbling. By the first birthday, a typical toddler says words, turns when he hears his name, points when he wants a toy, and when offered something distasteful, makes it clear that the answer is "no."

Some children diagnosed with ASD remain mute throughout their lives. Some infants who later show signs of ASD coo and babble during the first few months of life, but they soon stop. Others may be delayed, developing language as late as age 5 to 9. Some children may learn to use communication systems such as pictures or sign language.

Those who do speak often use language in unusual ways. They seem unable to combine words into meaningful sentences. Some speak only single words, while others repeat the same phrase over and over. Some ASD children parrot what they hear, a condition called echolalia. Although many children with no ASD go through a stage where they repeat what they hear, it normally passes by the time they are age 3.

Some children only mildly affected may exhibit slight delays in language, or even seem to have precocious language and unusually large vocabularies, but have great difficulty in sustaining a conversation. The "give and take" of normal conversation is hard for them, although they often carry on a monologue on a favorite subject, giving no one else an opportunity to comment.

Another difficulty is often the inability to understand body language, tone of voice, or "phrases of speech." They might interpret a sarcastic expression such as "Oh, that's just great" as meaning it really IS great.

While it can be hard to understand what ASD children are saying, their body language is also difficult to understand. Facial expressions, movements, and gestures rarely match what they are saying. Also, their tone of voice fails to reflect their feelings.

A high-pitched, sing-song, or flat, robot-like voice is common. Some children with relatively good language skills speak like little adults, failing to pick up on the "kid-speak" that is common in their peers.

Without meaningful gestures or the language to ask for things, people with ASD are at a loss to let others know what they need. As a result, they may simply scream or grab what they want. Until they are taught better ways to express their needs, ASD children do whatever they can to get through to others.

As people with ASD grow up, they can become increasingly aware of their difficulties in understanding others and in being understood. As a result they may become anxious or depressed.

Repetitive Behaviors in Autism

Although children with ASD usually appear physically normal and have good muscle control, odd repetitive motions may set them off from other children. These behaviors might be extreme and highly apparent or more subtle. Some children and older individuals spend a lot of time repeatedly flapping their arms or walking on their toes. Some suddenly freeze in position.

As children, they might spend hours lining up their cars and trains in a certain way, rather than using them for pretend play. If someone accidentally moves one of the toys, the child may be tremendously upset. ASD children need, and demand, absolute consistency in their environment.

A slight change in any routine-in mealtimes, dressing, taking a bath, going to school at a certain time and by the same route-can be extremely disturbing. Perhaps order and sameness lend some stability in a world of confusion.

Repetitive behavior sometimes takes the form of a persistent, intense preoccupation. For example, the child might be obsessed with learning all about vacuum cleaners, train schedules, or lighthouses. Often there is great interest in numbers, symbols, or science topics.

Sources: National Institute of Mental Health, Public Health Training Network Webcast,
Autism Among Us

Autism Resources

Listing of National Autism Organizations

Autism Resources

View more pages on this site relating to "what is autism?"

View the article A Child With Autism.

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