Autism is an umbrella term for
a wide spectrum of disorders, sometimes referred to as “Pervasive Developmental
Disorders” or “Autism Spectrum Disorders.” This essay is intended
as a basic introduction -- a who, what, when, where, why, and how of autism.
does autism affect?
Autism spectrum disorders cut across all lines of race, class, and ethnicity.
Autism impacts millions of children, adults, and their families around
the world. Boys have a significantly higher incidence of autism than girls:
out of every five people with autism are male. Because of the genetic link,
siblings of a child with autism have a greater chance of being diagnosed
with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism spectrum disorders affect not
only the person diagnosed with the disorder, but also make a significant impact
on the entire family with a variety of social, financial, and other practical
WHAT is autism?
The word “autism” often evokes an image of a
person with the most severe symptoms of the disorder; however, autism is
an umbrella term for a
wide range of disorders. Clinically, they may be referred to as “Pervasive
Developmental Disorders” (PDDs) or “Autism Spectrum Disorders.”
The term “spectrum” is crucial to understanding autism, because of
the wide range of intensity, symptoms and behaviors, types of disorders, and
as always, considerable individual variation. Children with autism spectrum
disorders may be non-verbal and asocial, as in the case of many with “classic” autism,
or Autistic Disorder. On the other end of the spectrum are children with a
high-functioning form of autism characterized by idiosyncratic social skills
and play, such as Asperger Syndrome. In the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
(DSM-IV), these diagnostic categories are outlined under the heading of “Pervasive
Developmental Disorders (PDDs).” In the DSM-IV, these disorders are
defined by deficits in three core areas: social skills, communication, and
and/or interests. Types of autism spectrum disorders, or PDDs, include:
- Autistic Disorder
- Asperger Syndrome
- Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
- Rett Syndrome
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
More information about the diagnostic categories of autism may be found at
the Autism Society of America’s
WHEN is autism diagnosed?
The First Signs
of autism most often present themselves
before the age of three; with education and practice, some clinicians have
even been able to
the warning signs in children under the age of one. Often, however, 15
to 18 months is the time parents first notice loss of skills or delays in development.
Please see Hallmark Developmental Milestones and
Red Flags for some of
Autism is characterized by what is clinically described as “deficits
in social reciprocity.” Social reciprocity may include a range of back-and-forth
actions, such as gestures, sounds, play, attention, and conversation. Further,
ritualistic and obsessive behaviors are often present: for example, a child
may insist on lining up toys rather than playing with them. In addition,
a child with an autism spectrum disorder may have uncontrollable temper tantrums,
an extreme resistance to change, and over- or under-sensitivity to sights
sounds. The signs may be obvious, or subtle: for example, a three year old
child can read, but can’t play peek-a-boo. Another child may never utter
a spoken word, but rather uses pictures or signing to be understood. The
are varied, but one thing is clear: the earlier a child is diagnosed and
begins receiving services, the better the prognosis for the child.
a parent of a child with autism go for help?
Help for a child with autism begins at the physician’s office,
with a referral to Early Intervention,
specialists, and other services that
might be covered
by the insurance plan. Six months before a child’s third birthday, parents
should contact their local school district for special educational services.
At all stages of the process, from
diagnosis to making
decisions about educational and
treatment options, parents may benefit from
of support groups, advocacy groups, and other organizations. These groups
can provide a firm base for parent education and action. For more information,
please see Resources.
WHY does a child have autism?
At this juncture, autism has no known cause or
cure. Today, many parents and physicians are working together to advocate
for increased funding
HOW can I ensure the best developmental outcome for a child with autism?
Children with autism will have the best developmental outcome through
early identification as well as early, intensive, and appropriate intervention.
Please see the Treatments section for more information. Parents can
help promote a
healthy developmental pathway for a child with autism in much the same
way as for a typically-developing child: by being a loving, active,
caregiver, and by working creatively with each child’s unique challenges
WHAT other disorders are often associated
with this profile and should be ruled out or in by a specialist?
Often, you will see one or more overlapping disorders, including
seizures, allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, immune dysfunction,
hyperactivity, obsessive behaviors, anxiety, mood regulation, and
depression. None of these on their own would indicate a presence of
an autism spectrum disorder, however, many children with ASD will
have one or more of these co-morbid symptoms. About 25% of children
with autism will experience seizures during their lifetime. Before
the diagnosis of ASD is given, the following disorders should be
ruled out or in:
Fragile X Syndrome
Developmental Language Disorder
Schizoid Personality Disorder
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Chromosomal and Metabolic Disorders
Back to top
Next page =>