Many of us have heard of people who appear to live in their own world, with unusual sensory interests such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving things. We may be familiar with stories of individuals who are very good at mathematics, such as Einstein, or have other specific heightened abilities. The same people can be extremely sensitive to sensory input, causing them to avoid everyday sounds from hair dryers or other motorized machines, and certain sensations like the texture of sand. They even have intellectual impairments or learning difficulties. The term “autism” is commonly used to describe these people. In fact, Autism Spectrum Disorder includes classic autism, Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Each person with one of these disorders is unique and needs specific treatment. The common element among these disorders is developmental disabilities that may make these individuals have a strongly reduced capacity for social interaction, emotional reciprocity or communication and display stereotypical behaviour. The effects of an Autism Spectrum Disorder can often be minimised by early diagnosis, and with the right interventions, many children and adults with an ASD show marked improvements. Many children with autism go to school and continue on to university, work and raising a family.
Even though people with ASD differ, they generally share three main difficulties:
1. Severe delay in social interaction, including some of the bellow –
Limited use of non-verbal communication such as eye contact, facial expressions gestures and postures.Difficulties forming and sustaining relationships due to a lack of empathy (understanding and being aware of the feelings of others).Lack of spontaneity and difficulties sharing enjoyment, interest and activities with other people.Difficulties with social and emotional responsiveness; dislike of cuddling or being touched.
2. Severe slowdown in language development and communication that occurs with:
Delayed language developmentDifficulties initiating and sustaining conversationStereotyped and repetitive use of language, i.e., repeating phrases, echolaliaLimited imagination or spontaneity characterized by a lack of make-believe play or role-play
3. Restricted, repetitive and stereotyped interests and activities, such as:
Unusually intense or focused interestsStereotyped and repetitive body movements like hand flapping and spinning obsessionsRepetitive use of objects like flicking a doll’s eyes or lining up toysAdherence to non-functional routines such as insisting on travelling the same route home each day
Diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorders
To diagnose ASDs professionals administer standardised tests or questionnaires and family interviews, normally in early childhood. Families usually visit paediatric physicians when their children are infants for routine examinations. Certain behaviour may prompt doctors to perform examinations for ASDs. The important thing is that professionals work with parents in order to make a correct and timely diagnosis. Professionals should support parents so they do not feel guilty or hopeless. They must also care for the children by providing appropriate treatment to help them improve. People with ASD can have different symptoms and display very different characteristics. Early diagnosis is made by paediatricians who screen children (usually 18 months to 3 years of age), checking their developmental abilities for their age, like eye contact, language skills, gesturing, posturing, and for the presence of ritualistic behaviour/stereotypy, etc.
Autism can exist on its own or in combination with other developmental disorders like mental retardation, learning disabilities, epilepsy, deafness, blindness, etc. Cases range in a continuous spectrum from mild to more severe.
What causes ASD?
Currently, there is no single known cause for ASD, however recent research has identified strong genetic links. Other studies suggest a neurological problem that affects those parts of the brain that process language and sensory information. There may be a specific chemical imbalance of certain substances in the brain. Some genes are suspected to have links to ASD. Autism may in fact result from a combination of various causes.
Did you know…?
Autism is one of the major developmental disorders, occurring 1-2 times in every thousand children born.Autism occurs worldwide in all races, nationalities and social classes. Four out of five people with autism are male.A person with autism feels love, happiness, sadness and pain just like everyone else, but some may not express their feelings in typical ways.With early diagnosis and treatment there are always improvements that can assist individuals with autism in having jobs and families.They may have “special abilities” in music, maths, etc.
Is there any cure?
Early diagnosis that leads to early intervention can help. Every individual with ASD will make progress, although each individual’s progress will be different depending on a number of factors like developmental factors, the child’s present level of functioning and capabilities, and the type of intervention. The aim of treatment is to achieve a good quality of life and to help families identify and participate in treatment programs based on an individual child’s needs. ABA (applied behaviour analysis) and experimental behaviour analysis focus on individualized education programs including teaching social and motor skills, speech, personal care and job skills. Some common characteristics of these interventions are a 1:1 therapist-child ratio, parent counselling and education with home intervention programs, supervised school integration and social inclusion, which are useful in reducing or eliminating maladaptive behaviours. Medication is also helpful in treating some symptoms of autism or other coexistent disorders in some children.
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Cohen, D., Donnellan, A., Rhea, P. (1987). In (eds): Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. New York, Wiley.
Kaplan, H.I., & Sadock, B.J., Grebb, J.A (1994). In (eds): Kaplan & Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry. 7th ed. Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, pp 1016-1154.
Rutter, M. Taylor, E., Hersov, L. (1994). Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Blackwell, Scientific Publications (3d ed). Oxford: England.
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