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Introduction to Autism


Autism and Related Pervasive Developmental Disorders

A Neurological Illness Characterized by Social, Communication and Behavioral Deficits

Autism is a neurological disorder (a "brain" disease) characterized by the presence of severe communication, language and social deficits in affected persons. It is the most well known of several pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) diagnoses which begin in early childhood and continue throughout life, affecting most every aspect of life along the way. While autistic peoples' cognitive (thinking and language) and social skills are typically developmentally delayed compared to their peers, their motor (movement) skills develop in a more normal fashion.

Specific social interaction, communication and behavioral deficits must be present before the diagnosis of autism is appropriate. Though all people with Austim people show the same specific pattern of impair...More

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What are Pervasive Developmental Disorders

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs), or sometimes, autism spectrum disorders include Autism, Rett's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Asperger's Disorder.
  • All of the pervasive developmental disorders are characterized by communication and social impairments. They are differentiated from one another on the basis of research suggesting different causes for the underlying impairments, and by different impairment profiles and intensities of impairment typical of each condition.
  • Though the terms "autism spectrum disorders" and "pervasive developmental disorders" have the same meaning, a person can have a pervasive developmental disorder and not carry the diagnosis of autism in particular.

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What is autism?

  • Autism is a neurological disorder (a "brain" disease) characterized by the presence of severe communication, language and social deficits in affected persons.
  • From a very early age, children with autism demonstrate a difficulty in processing social and non-verbal forms of communication, such as eye contact and facial expression.
  • Children with autism are also typically delayed (sometimes severely so) in their development of spoken language and conversational skills.
  • Those with autism frequently act with indifference towards others, and remain isolated from their surroundings.
  • Symptoms of autism usually become apparent between 18-36 months of age with 40% of cases being diagnosed by age three.
  • Autistic symptoms continue into adulthood with symptoms ranging in severity (across individuals) from relatively mild to severe and debilitating.
  • The rate of occurrence of autism has risen from 5 in every 10,000 in the mid 1990's to 1 in every 166 in 2005.
  • There is no known reason for the dramatic increase, but awareness of the condition may play a significant role.
  • It is important to recognize that Autism is not mental retardation, a lack of intelligence or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

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What are the symptoms of autism?

  • Autistic deficits cluster into three groups: communication-related, social and physical deficits.
  • Communication deficits include difficulty using spoken language and gestures, inability to initiate and sustain appropriate conversation and use of inappropriate, repetitive language.
  • Social deficits include a tendency towards isolation, difficulty making eye contact, inability to develop appropriate peer relationships and apparent lack of empathy.
  • Physical deficits take the form of stereotyped repetitive movements and unusual body posturing.
  • For a diagnosis of autism, delays or abnormal functioning occurs in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to 3 years of age: (1) social interaction (2) language as used in social communication (3) symbolic or imaginative play.

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What are the causes of Autism?

  • Originally it was thought that autism occurred as a result of poor parenting, specifically as a result of neglectful parents who failed to stimulate their children enough.
  • It is definitively known today that no amount of abuse or neglect can result in autism.
  • The best evidence available today appears to support a diathesis-stress model of causation.
  • Diathesis is a fancy work for vulnerability.
  • Diathesis-stress theories of illness basically suggest that it takes two events to cause an illness to occur.
  • First, a vulnerability towards getting that illness must be present and second, some stressful environmental event (or events) must occur that release the vulnerability and get the disease process going.
  • The exact nature of the vulnerability involved in causing autism is not clear at this time.
  • It is known that children who have siblings diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder have a greater risk of themselves becoming diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
  • The reason for this increased vulnerability risk appears to be genetic in nature, involving a heightened risk for chromosomal abnormalities.
  • Research on the environmental causes of autism is ongoing and a variety of environmental stressors, including various environmental pollutants, toxins, viruses and the like, have been proposed to be capable of performing an activating role in autism.
  • A UK-based article published in 1998 stated that autism might be created in vulnerable people through exposure to a mercury compound (Thimerosal) formerly used as a preservative in normal childhood vaccines such as the MMR (Measles, Mumps and German Measles/Rubella) vaccine.
  • In 2004, 10 of the study's coauthors made a partial retraction of the research, and in January 2011, it was determined that the original research study that proposed this controversial theory had been proven to be fraudulent and the study author was stripped his clinical and academic credentials for dishonesty.
  • Whatever the actual causes of autism may turn out to be, it appears beyond question at this time that autism itself is a fundamentally biologically based disease.

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How are Autism Spectrum Disorders diagnosed?

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders are difficult to recognize because symptoms come on slowly and gradually and parents are seldom motivated to assume the worst about their children's atypical behavior and symptoms until they become impossible to ignore.
  • Though symptoms might be visible early on to an experienced eye, most parents do not bring their children in for formal diagnosis until they are between eighteen months and three years of age.
  • To make it easier for parents to know what specific signs to look for, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has provided a list of warning signs and milestones all revolving around the crucial theme of communication deficits.
  • The presence of any one of the following should raise a flag that a child might benefit from professional assessment and help.
    • The child does not babble or coo by twelve months.
    • The child does not use gestures to communicate and the child does not wave.
    • The child does not grasp objects or point to objects by twelve months.
    • The child does not say single words by the age of sixteen months and does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months.
    • The child has a loss of any language or social skills at any age.
  • Typically, parents become concerned about their child's behaviors or developmental delays, and take their child to see a pediatrician who conducts a medical exam, and notices symptoms consistent with an autism spectrum disorder. The pediatrician will then often refer the family to a child psychiatrist or psychologist for further assessment.
  • A variety of tests and questionnaires help parents and doctors measure autism symptoms so as to determine if symptoms of autism or other PDDs are present.

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How are Autism Spectrum Disorders treated?

  • There is no cure for autism or pervasive development disorder (PDD) diagnoses.
  • They are chronic lifelong conditions that can only be treated and moderated with appropriate intervention.
  • It is crucial to intervene as early as possible when autism or another PDD is present, because (with the exception of Asperger's disorder) these conditions interfere with normal language development. Without therapeutic assistance, children with these conditions will not learn language properly or at all.
  • A wide variety of interventions have been developed for children with autism or PDD diagnoses. A few of these include:
  • Selected approaches address each child's specific needs as determined by educators and clinicians whose findings are formalized as an individualized treatment plan.
  • Each child's treatment plan outlines that child's strengths and needs and also lists long-term and short-term goals for the child to reach.
  • The treatment plan also outlines specific interventions that are to be used to help the child meet these goals.

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How can families cope with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis?

  • Raising a child who has been diagnosed with autism or a related pervasive developmental disorder is a daunting and exhausting task.
  • There are many appointments to keep with some families coordinating between 20 and 40 hours of therapy each week.
  • They are visited by therapists, behavior specialists, case managers and support staff.
  • They deal with their children's isolation, anxiety and tantrums, as well as their own often troubling emotional reactions.
  • In short, families need support to help them cope.
  • Respite services help families caring for children with autism to have a break from caregiving, usually for just long enough so that caregivers can catch their breath.
  • Advisory Board on Autism and Related Disorders (ABOARD) provides information and resources to caretakers and it helps families who are waiting for diagnosis, educational support and therapeutic interventions.
  • Support groups are mutual self-help groups, run either by peers (other parents of autistic children), or by professionals working in the autism or PDD field.
  • Wraparound is a temporary, physician prescribed service that brings therapy directly to needy families and is used to help children with autism work towards independence.

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What is adulthood like for those with autism?

  • Autism is a life-long, chronic disorder that can significantly impact affected people's social and cognitive development and as a result, adult functioning is frequently compromised.
  • Some adults with autism learn to function well in society and are able to earn degrees and to maintain employment.
  • Others never develop the communication and self-help skills necessary to live independently.
  • When children with autism reach the age of fourteen, their caregivers and teachers create a transition planning review in collaboration with the school district that covers issues like education and training as well as career planning.
  • Living arrangements and income are some of the major issues facing adults with autism. While some are able to manage independently, others must be supervised around the clock in order to ensure their safety.
  • Even if adults with autism are able to maintain a job and groom themselves independently, they may not be able to deal with everyday situations requiring good social skills like meeting new people, asking appropriate questions or maintaining interpersonal relationships.
  • The ideal jobs for adults with autism are usually quite structured in nature. Many high-functioning adults with autism or PDD find employment in computer-related fields, some like the repetition of assembly line work, and others prefer working with animals.
  • Many adults with autism are able to function quite well in group homes that provided assisted living support, while others live with family members throughout their lives.

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News Articles

  • No Link Between Tdap Vaccine, Autism: Study

    Children born to women who got the Tdap vaccine during pregnancy have no greater risk of autism than other kids, a new study finds. More...

  • Google Glass Helps Kids With Autism Navigate Emotions of Others

    Alex, who is 9, was part of a pilot study that used the smartglasses to provide a small group of children real-time feedback about the emotions being conveyed in others' faces, researchers explained. More...

  • Brain Scans Yield More Clues to Autism

    Children with autism show abnormalities in a deep brain circuit that typically makes socializing enjoyable, a new study finds. More...

  • Researchers Probe Part of Brain Where Autism Might Begin

    The underpinnings of autism may lie in an unexpected part of the brain, a small study suggests. More...

  • Many Young People With Autism Can Become Safe Drivers: Study

    Letting any teen behind the wheel of a car is nerve-wracking for parents, but if your teen has autism, you may wonder if driving is even possible. More...

  • 30 More
    • Allergies More Common in Kids With Autism

      Children with autism are more likely to also have a food, respiratory or skin allergy, new research suggests. More...

    • Baby Teeth Give Clues to Origins and Detection of Autism

      A close examination of baby teeth is giving new insight into the roots of autism -- and ways to spot it early. More...

    • Screening May Miss Signs of Autism, Especially in Girls: Study

      An important checklist used to screen for autism can miss subtle clues in some children, delaying their eventual diagnosis. More...

    • Much International Consensus Regarding Employment in Autism

      There is international consensus as to the importance of work experience and vocational training for helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder obtain employment, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, held from May 9 to 12 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. More...

    • What Helps Adults With Autism Get and Keep a Job?

      Adults with autism face many challenges, and one of the biggest is finding and keeping a job. More...

    • Meet Nao, the Robot That Helps Treat Kids With Autism

      It may seem counterintuitive, but a robot might help kids with autism interact better with humans. More...

    • Prevalence of ASD Estimated at 16.8 per 1,000 for 8-Year-Olds

      The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder was estimated at 16.8 per 1,000 children aged 8 years in 2014, according to research published online April 27 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. More...

    • More U.S. Kids Being Diagnosed With Autism

      Autism rates continue to climb in the United States. More...

    • Health Tip: Recognize Early Signs of Autism

      Autism may be detected at an early age by paying attention to your baby's social and language skills, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. More...

    • ADHD Frequently Co-Occurs With Autism Spectrum Disorder

      Co-occurrence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is common in children with autism spectrum disorder, and children with both conditions have a higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders, according to a study published in the April issue of Pediatrics. More...

    • Brain Cell Development Differs in Those With Autism: Study

      Neurons in a brain area involved with social and emotional behavior normally increase as children become adults, but this does not occur in people with autism, new research contends. More...

    • Children With ASD, Younger Siblings Are Undervaccinated

      Compared with the general population, children with autism spectrum disorder and their younger siblings are undervaccinated, according to a study published online March 26 in JAMA Pediatrics. More...

    • MRI Sheds New Light on Brain Networks Tied to Autism

      New research suggests that a special MRI technique can spot abnormal connections in the brains of preschoolers with autism. More...

    • Amygdala Neurons Reduced in Adulthood With Autism

      In neurotypical development, there is an increase in the number of mature neurons in the basal and accessory basal nuclei, whereas an initial excess of amygdala neurons is seen during childhood in autism spectrum disorder, followed by a reduction in adulthood, according to a study published online March 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More...

    • Anti-Vaccine Movement Affecting Kids With Autism

      Vaccine skeptics appear to be swaying many parents of children with autism to forgo critical childhood vaccines, a new study suggests. More...

    • Mom's Pre-Pregnancy Waist Size Tied to Autism Risk

      The pre-pregnancy width of a woman's waist -- but not whether or not she is actually obese -- may be tied to autism risk in her children, new research suggests. More...

    • Facebook May Be 'Safe' Social Space for Adults With Autism

      Moderate use of Facebook may help make adults with autism happier, a new study suggests. More...

    • Mean Depth of Ultrasonographic Penetration Greater in Autism

      Children with autism spectrum disorder have a significantly greater mean depth of ultrasonographic penetration, according to a study published online Feb. 12 in JAMA Pediatrics. More...

    • Therapy Helps Those With Autism Navigate Adulthood

      For young people with autism, the leap to adulthood can feel like jumping off a cliff, but researchers may be zeroing in on a safety net. More...

    • Cognitive Enhancement Therapy Beneficial for Adults With Autism

      For adults with autism spectrum disorder, cognitive enhancement therapy is associated with significant differential increases in neurocognitive function relative to enriched supportive therapy and increased likelihood of gaining competitive employment, according to a study published recently in Autism Research. More...

    • Prenatal Vitamins Tied to Lower Autism Risk in Kids, Study Finds

      Taking folic acid and multivitamins during pregnancy could reduce your child's risk of autism, a new study suggests. More...

    • Prevalence of Autism Seems to Be Stabilizing in U.S. Children, Teens

      The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among U.S. children and adolescents was 2.41 percent in 2014 to 2016, according to a research letter published online Jan. 2 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. More...

    • U.S. Autism Rates May Be Stabilizing

      Autism rates are much higher than originally thought but may have stabilized in recent years, a new study suggests. More...

    • Neuroanatomic Abnormalities ID'd in Those at Risk for Autism

      Neuroanatomic abnormalities are seen in cohorts at high risk for autism spectrum disorder, according to a study published in the January issue of Radiology. More...

    • Maternal Multivitamin Use Tied to Lower Risk of Child ASD

      Multivitamin supplementation during pregnancy is tied to a reduced risk of autism spectrum disorder with intellectual disability, according to a study published online Oct. 4 in BMJ. More...

    • Researchers Learn More About Gender's Role in Autism Risk

      When oldest female child has the disorder, risk is raised for younger siblings, especially boys: study. More...

    • Genetics a Cause of Autism in Most Cases: Study

      Re-analysis of stats from earlier study shows new estimate of DNA impact. More...

    • Could Folic Acid Fight a Cause of Autism?

      Prenatal supplements may help reduce harms of pesticide exposure, study suggests. More...

    • Does Autism Risk Reside in Cells' Energy Engines?

      Study suggests genetic variations in the DNA of mitochondria may up risk for developmental disorder More...

    • Guideline Changes Have Asperger's Community on Edge

      Change in psychiatric manual will fold it into autism spectrum disorders, leaving many unsure about getting needed services More...

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