This is by far the most frequently asked question. Briefly, it is a severely incapacitating life long developmental disorder that typically occurs in the first three years of life. It causes impairment or disturbance in three main areas, Social skills, communicative (verbal as well as non-verbal) skills, and in their repetitive and restricted behaviors. Autistic individuals may show abnormal responses to sensory information. Any one or more of the senses may be affected. All these difficulties are manifested in their behavior resulting in abnormal ways of relating to people, objects and events in the environment.
Autism is known as a ‘spectrum disorder,’ because the severity of symptoms ranges from mild learning and social difficulties to severe impairment with multiple problems and highly unusual behavior. This disorder may occur alone, or could be accompanied by various problems such as mental retardation or seizures. Autism is not a rare disorder, being the third most common developmental disorder, its prevalence is greater than that of Down’s Syndrome. Typically, 20 out of 10,000 people have autism or have autistic symptoms. 80% of those affected by autism are boys. Autism is found throughout the world, in families of any economic, social, and/or racial background. Doctors, politicians, and rickshaw drivers alike could have children with autism.
A child with high functioning autism may have a normal or even higher I.Q., be able to attend a regular school, and hold a regular job later in life. However, these individuals may have difficulties expressing themselves and may not know how to mingle with other people. Moderately and more seriously affected children with autism will vary tremendously. Some autistic children may be unable to develop speech, while others may develop speech but still experience difficulties using language to communicate. Often, there is an unusual speech pattern, such as echoing whatever is said to them, repeating a word over and over, reversing “you” and “I” when asking for something, and speaking only to express needs rather than emotions.
A child with autism looks just like any other child, but has distinctive behavior patterns. Individuals may enjoy rocking or spinning either themselves or other objects, They engage in repetitive behavior for a long period of time. At other times, the child may switch from one activity to another, and may appear to be hyperactive. Many autistic children have sensitivity to certain sounds or sensations, and at other times, may appear not to hear anything at all. Autistic child have difficulties engaging in pretend play; they may not play appropriately with toys or may prefer to play with unusual objects. Some express talent and skills such as singing and reciting rhymes, but may not be able to do things that require social skills.
There are no medical or genetic tests that can detect autism. These kinds of tests can only rule out other conditions. A diagnosis of autism requires a sensitive and experienced doctor to observe the child very carefully, ask the parents about the development of the child, and then objectively follow internationally recognized criteria for diagnosis. Onset may occur at birth, or a child may have a period of normal development followed by a deterioration of verbal and social skills around 1 1/2-2 1/2 years. Where onset is at birth, the disorder can be detected as early as a year. Autism may occur alongside conditions such as mental retardation and hyperactivity, but the autistic traits in the person are typically what require attention.
At this point in time we do not know the cause of autism. However, current research indicates that anything that can produce structural or functional damage to the central nervous system can also produce the condition of Autism. We know that certain viruses and known genetic conditions are associated with Autism. There are families that have more than one child with autism. At present, it is believed that about 10% of all cases can be genetically accounted for. It is difficult to tell parents why their child has autism since researchers believe that the problem is caused by different factors, and in most cases, the cause is never known. Autism is not caused by an “unhappy home environment”, working parents, mental stress during the pregnancy, poor handling by the mother, an emotional trauma, or other psychological factors. You cannot cause a child to become autistic.
At this point we do not know what causes Autism and therefore cannot fix (cure) what is wrong in the child’s brain. Many therapeutic methods (medications, diets, etc.) are being presented but nothing has proven to work. Similarly, without knowing the cause of autism, there is no way to prevent it. At present, there is no cure for autism: there is no medication, no pills, no injections which can make the problem go away.
The only consistently effective treatment for autism is a structured training program; therefore, a combination of a good school and parent training is the best known treatment. Autistic children can make significant progress if the intervention is appropriate and consistent. Early intervention, before the child is five, is especially crucial to the child’s progress. This is why an early and accurate diagnosis is so important. Autistic children grow to become autistic adults, and there is a particular need for meaningful outlets for social interaction and employment where possible.
Autism is a spectrum disorder. Currently there is no reliable objective measure of the severity of Autism in an individual. Children with Autism have potential for building up their skills and they can be helped if they receive early, well-focused intervention. Depending on the child’s individual skill profile and the appropriateness and intensity of intervention he or she receives, children with Autism can lead relatively independent lives.
There are a number of autistic children who have integrated into regular schools. The chances depend on several factors. The most important is “What is the skill profile, how early diagnosis was received, and thereafter the kind of early intervention provided?” Most children with Autism have different learning styles from regular children and therefore teaching styles also need to be different. In some schools this is not understood and therefore children with Autism face difficulties; after Grades 4 or Grade 5 many have to drop out.
A large member of autistic children (about 30-50%) do not use speech. It is very difficult to say when and whether the child will ever speak. It is confirmed that there is no difficulty in their physical abilities that blocks their speech. Some children who might have spoken as infants and then lost their speech may or may not get their speech back. Currently, it is unknown why some children develop speech and others do not. Experience with children with autism has shown that if the environment is accepting, and people are aware of the kind of speech they themselves need to use with the child, it can produce positive results.
Speech Therapy can help some children. It is absolutely essential for the speech therapist to understand Autism and also the individual with autism. Otherwise, the conventional methods of speech therapy are not as help children with Autism, because as stated above, the inability to speak is not a physical problem. However, every child with autism can benefit from interventions that emphasize communication.
Hyperactivity can have a medical reason. However, most children with Autism are restless because of an impairment of their imaginative and social skills. They cannot play with their toys and other children meaningfully and find it very difficult to occupy themselves. Often they eat a lot to keep themselves occupied. Hyperactivity can be reduced as the children are taught new skills and ways to keep themselves occupied.
About 10% of the cases of Autism can be accounted for genetically. If there is one child with Autism in the family, risks of having another child with autism is much higher than in the general population. So far, there is no reliable test to detect Autism in the fetus.
Children with Autism respond to sensations abnormally. They often have a condition known as sensory dysfunction this means either over or under stimulation in any one or more of the sensory modalities (hearing, sight, taste, touch, smell, balance). One theory is that these unusual mannerisms like flapping and rocking etc. are natural responses or methods of coping with sensory difficulties. These behaviors may help them to relax.
For Further question you can contact us:
Dr. Sunita Maleku Amatya
Trained in Action For Autism, New Delhi, India