What is autism?
Autism is a neuro-biological developmental disorder which usually appears in early childhood and continues throughout someone's life. It is characterized by three primary symptoms
- Communication (verbal and non-verbal) - Children with autism may often avoid eye contact, and may have difficulty expressing themselves clearly. They may also start speaking more slowly than other children. They may sometimes fail to respond to their names and may even refer to themselves in the third person.
- Social interactions - They are not able to fully understand or interpret what others are communicating to them (whether its the words, the tone or facial expressions). They may keep talking without caring about the responses of the other person.
- Repetitive behaviour - Children with autism may repeat the same sentence over and over again, obsessively follow routines, and may not be very flexible about what appear to others as minor issues (eg., the order in which their crayons are kept).
Many autistic children also have a reduced sensitivity to pain while many have a heightened sensitivity to stimulation like sound, touch etc., The latter may result in a resistance to touch gestures like hugging.
How is autism diagnosed?
Autism is diagnosed by medical professionals through a thorough screening, observation and analysis of the child's behaviour over a period of time.
[Editor's note: The information here is provided for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for a medical professional's advise and guidance]
Some of the triggers that parents should watch out for include1:
- Does not babble or coo by 12 months of age
- Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp, etc.) by 12 months of age
- Does not say single words by 16 months of age
- Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own (rather than just repeating what someone says to him or her) by 24 months of age
- Has ANY loss of ANY language or social skill at ANY age
Some publications2also provide the following triggers for parents to watch out for. Please be careful to note that a number of the following triggers are also exhibited by perfectly normal children.
- The child does not respond to his/her name.
- The child cannot explain what he/she wants.
- The child’s language skills are slow to develop or speech is delayed.
- The child doesn’t follow directions.
- At times, the child seems to be deaf.
- The child seems to hear sometimes, but not other times.
- The child doesn’t point or wave “bye-bye.”
- The child used to say a few words or babble, but now he/she doesn’t.
- The child throws intense or violent tantrums.
- The child has odd movement patterns.
- The child is overly active, uncooperative, or resistant.
- The child doesn’t know how to play with toys.
- The child doesn’t smile when smiled at.
- The child has poor eye contact.
- The child gets “stuck” doing the same things over and over and can’t move on to other things.
- The child seems to prefer to play alone.
- The child gets things for him/herself only.
- The child is very independent for his/her age.
- The child does things “early” compared to other children.
- The child seems to be in his/her “own world.”
- The child seems to tune people out.
- The child is not interested in other children.
- The child walks on his/her toes.
- The child shows unusual attachments to toys, objects, or schedules (i.e., always holding a string or having to put socks on before pants).
- Child spends a lot of time lining things up or putting things in a certain order.
When these triggers occur a parent should consult a doctor and a doctor may conduct an extensive screening that focuses on the 3 areas listed above - communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviour. Sometimes, speech development can get delayed because of reduced hearing rather than autism. So a hearing test is usually one of the first tests a doctor will order.
Once a thorough analysis is done, a diagnosis is usually made by the doctors.
What causes autism?
No conclusions have been reached yet. Scientific research points to genetics and environment but nothing conclusive has been discovered yet.
Early in 2008, there was a move to connect vaccines and autism, with some studies suggesting that certain vaccines could cause it. However, these studies have not held up under further scientific scrutiny2.
How is autism treated?
No cure for autism has been discovered yet.
Current treatment methods combine behavioral therapy and medication.
Behavioral therapy is delivered by trained therapists and uses many of the following methods:
- Encouraging children to focus more on positive behaviour while discouraging unwanted behaviour.
- Teaching children to increase their verbal communications skills or teach them alternate non-verbal communication skills
- Physical therapy
- Focusing on skills and activities that the children show an interest in
Medication to reduce specific symptoms associated with autism (like behaviour that causes self-injury).
What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?
Autism (now called "classical autism" and what most people refer to) is part of a group of developmental disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Other ASDs include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Many times, terms like autism, ASD and PDD are used interchangeably.
How common is autism in India?
We have not found any scientific research that tried to assess the prevalence of autism in India. There are reports that claim that the problem is underdiagnosed because of lack of information about the disorder.
In the US, the estimates are that 1 in 150 chldren have some form of ASD3.
1. Filipek, et al. (2000), "Practice Parameter: Screening and Diagnosis of Autism - Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society", Neurology, 55:468-479
2. "Autism Overview", National Institute of Child Health and Development, National Institutes of Health
3. CDC Autism Information Center
Parentree group - Parents of autistic children