Autism, also called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is the most common pervasive developmental disorder, affecting more than 1 percent of children. The condition interferes with communication skills and social interaction and involves ritualized and repetitive behavioral patterns. It is usually diagnosed during early childhood. Early interventional treatments have been demonstrated to help children with the disorder develop improved language and social skills and to cope more successfully with their environment.
Male children are four times more likely to develop autism than female children. There is evidently a genetic link to the disorder, since parents of one autistic child have a greater risk of giving birth to another. Abnormalities have been documented in the brains and genetic makeup of individuals with autism. Ongoing research indicates that autism is caused by some combination of genetic and environmental factors, but no precise cause of the disorder has been isolated.
Signs of autism can range from mild to severe and may include:
- Difficulty communicating
- Difficulty making eye contact
- Difficulty interpreting facial expressions, body language, and social cues
- Tendency to repetitive behaviors, like repeated sounds or hand-flapping
- Decreased or heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli
- Inflexibility, insistence on ritualized behavior
- Desire to be alone
- Self-abusive behavior
- Apparent insensitivity to pain
There are several other separate diagnosable types of autism spectrum disorder. Each category may present with varying symptoms and differing degrees of severity.
Asperger‘s Syndrome is the mildest form of ASD. Patients with this disorder have average or above average intelligence and good language skills. They may still have difficulty communicating, however, because they tend to take language literally and have trouble deciphering sarcasm or irony. Their behavior is often socially inappropriate because they are unable to assimilate body language and social cues in the usual way.
Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
PDD-NOS is a designation that refers to children who, although they have problems with communication and social interaction, are more social than others with autism or Asperger‘s syndrome.
Rett‘s syndrome is a genetic disorder affecting only girls. Symptoms resemble those of autism, but Rett‘s is usually accompanied by seizures.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
Children with childhood disintegrative disorder develop normally for the first several years of life but later regress, losing language skills and displaying an increasing number of autistic characteristics.
There is currently no cure for autism, but treatment with behavioral therapy and medication may help patients to improve language and social skills and to cope with being “different.”
Medication can also be of value in helping patients to control troubling or socially unacceptable behavior patterns so that they can have more normal social interactions and lead more normal lives. There are an increasing number of programs and therapies available to assist autistic children, both within the public schools and in other venues.