Definitions, symptom checklist, and information on related conditions.
Autism is a developmental disability that affects a person’s verbal and non-verbal communication, understanding of language, and socialization with peers. Other characteristics include: engagement in repetitive activities, resistance to environmental change, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.
The range of severity can be from extremely mild to severe. Autism is a behavioral disorder, not an illness or disease. It typically appears by age three and is a lifelong condition. There is no known cure, although there are documented cases of symptoms being reduced and even some children losing their diagnosis alltogether. Although autism affects the functions of the brain, the specific cause is not known.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an increasingly popular term that refers to a broad definition of autism including the classic form of the disorder as well as closely related disabilities that share many of the core characteristics. Although the classic form of autism can be readily distinguished from other forms of ASD, the terms autism and ASD are often used interchangeably.
ASD includes the following classifications:
(1) Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Refers to a collection of features that resemble autism but may not be as severe or extensive. Also known as mild or atypical autism. Many with PDD-NOS are deemed “high functioning.”
(2) Asperger Syndrome (AS) – Individuals with AS show crippling deficiencies in social skills. They have difficulties with transitions and prefer sameness. They often have obsessive routines and may be preoccupied with a particular subject of interest. They have a great deal of difficulty reading nonverbal cues (body language) and very often the individual with AS has difficulty determining proper body space. Often overly sensitive to sounds, tastes, smells, and sights, the person with AS may prefer soft clothing, certain foods, and be bothered by sounds or lights no one else seems to hear or see. Those with Asperger’s typically have a normal to above average IQ and many (not all) exhibit exceptional abilities or talents in specific areas of interest.
(3) Rett’s Syndrome – A rare disorder affecting girls. It’s a genetic disorder with hard neurological signs, including seizures, that become more apparent with age. Hypotonia (loss of muscle tone) is usually the first symptom then followed by hand-wringing stereotypy. The syndrome affects approximately 1 in every 10,000-15,000 live female births. The gene causing the disorder has now been identified.
(4) Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – Refers to children whose development appears normal for the first few years, but then regresses with the loss of speech and other skills until the characteristics of autism are exhibited. Deterioration of intellectual, social, and language skills over a period of several months is commonly seen. Individuals with autism and ASD vary widely in ability and personality. In fact, it’s been said that there are no two autistic individuals who are the same. They can fall anywhere on a “spectrum,” ranging from severe mental retardation all the way to being extremely gifted in their intellectual and academic accomplishments. While many individuals prefer isolation and tend to withdraw from social contact, others show high levels of affection and enjoy social situations. Some people with autism appear lethargic and slow to respond but others are very active and seem to interact constantly with preferred aspects of their environment.
Other Related Disorders
The severity, frequency, and grouping of the following symptoms will determine where (if at all) an individual will fall on the autism spectrum:
• Repetitive behaviors (may want to watch the same program over and over again)
• Unresponsive to commands or questions (“intheir own world”)
• Delayed speech & language development (non-verbal, especially by age 3)
• Lack of imitation of others or imaginative play
• Indifferent to the feelings of others
• Hypersensitivity to light & sound (covers ears when music is played or covers eyes when going outside)
• Self-stimulatory behaviors (e.g., rocking, jumping up and down, hand flapping)
• Echolalia (Repetition or echoing of a word or phrase just spoken by another person)
• Unusual emotional responses (inappropriate laughing or crying)
• Frequent temper tantrums / meltdowns
• Responds adversely to physical affection, hugs, kisses, etc.
• Shows no interest in making friends
• Does not initiate conversation
• Very poor diet (may eat only starches)
• Frequently walks on tip-toes as a toddler
• Socially withdrawn or socially awkward
• Shows little expressive language
• Clumsiness (falls or trips often)
• Improper use of pronouns, statements, and questions
• Unusual tone or rhythm of speech
• Self Injurious Behavior (head banging, scratching/biting self)
• Frequently makes irrelevant remarks
• Difficulty with abstract language and concepts
• Be preoccupied with one or only a few narrow interests
• Need for sameness (adheres to routines)
• Severe tantrums when routines are disrupted
• Shows an attachment to unusual objects such as car parts, branches, leaves, etc.
• Fascination with spinning objects or spinning one’s self
• Very good at rote memory tasks such as repeating lists of items or facts