Understanding Autism

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Autism is a complicated developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others. Typically this brain disorder is diagnosed by the age of two or three. It affects children worldwide from various races, ethnic and social groups. Family income, education and/or lifestyle do not seem to affect the prevalence of autism, but the disorder is more common in boys than girls.

Autistic children often appear to be in a world of their own, oblivious to others. The way that they process and respond to information is different from what is considered normal. A combination of characteristics for these children can vary on a complex spectrum from severe to mild. Therefore, children with the same diagnosis often exhibit significantly different behaviors. In severe cases a person with autism will require lifelong supervision. While autism is not considered a form of mental retardation, many autistic children appear to function at that low level.

The following are some symptoms an autistic child may exhibit:

  • Inappropriate laughing or crying
  • Temper outbursts, aggressiveness
  • Extreme overactive or underactive behaviors
  • Difficulty interacting with other children
  • Irritation at changes in routine
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Inability to read body language or facial cues
  • Gestures to communicate
  • Inability to express desires
  • Abnormal speech patterns, such as repeating back what was said
  • Inability to carry on a meaningful conversation
  • Speaking out or making sounds at inappropriate times
  • Prolonged unusual play
  • Fixation on an object, such as spinning objects
  • Aloofness, indifference
  • Unresponsiveness to verbal requests
  • Repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior, such as hand-flapping, rocking, head banging or finger snapping
  • Self-mutilation
  • Little fear with insensitivity or oversensitivity to pain
  • Overactive or underactive sensitivity to sounds, lights, touch or smells
  • Unwillingness to be touched
  • Impaired gross and/or fine motor development
  • Sensory integration problems

Some autistic children have most of these characteristics, while others have only a few. The symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency.

Although numerous research studies are underway, no known causes for autism have been established. A variety of conditions affecting brain development before, during or after birth can contribute to a child developing autism. Mental illness in the family or inappropriate parenting are not considered causes for autism. Since there is no blood test or brain scan that can be used to determine the disorder at this time, diagnosis is based on observing a child's behavior.

Even though there is currently no cure for autism, many autistic children can live successful lives. Specialized education can reduce dysfunctional behaviors and increase the development of specific skills that can contribute to a child's quality of life. In some cases medication can relieve various symptoms. As the child develops and receives individualized instruction, characteristics of autism may diminish; however, children do not outgrow autism. For information on various treatment approaches see Behavioral and Communication Approaches at www.autism-society.org.

Asperger's Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism. It describes children who are often preoccupied with a particular subject and are average or above average in intelligence. Children with Asperger's Syndrome tend to think very literally. Their voice may be emotionless and their speech is sometimes repetitive and/or stilted. When conversing they often appear to be self-centered and lack common sense. They may have unusually accurate memory for details and little interest in what others think. There is no specific treatment for children with Asperger's Syndrome. However, it should be noted that as adults, many persons identified as having the disorder are married, employed and lead productive, independent lives.

Educators are charged with helping autistic children reach their full potential by providing training in academics, and social, communication and motor skills. An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) needs to be provided for an autistic child whose needs cannot be met in a regular classroom setting. Autistic children have difficulty learning outside of a structured environment with a small teacher-pupil ratio. However, as deemed appropriate, many autistic children can participate in some classroom activities and complete classroom assignments. Each autistic child is unique and must be considered as such. Whenever possible, interacting with non-disabled students is considered desirable.

Families with an autistic child are often stressed. These children often require constant supervision, understanding and care. Parents worry about leaving home and having their child's behavior misunderstood by others; they frequently feel isolated and worry about the future care of their child. Siblings with an autistic brother or sister also experience stress due to embarrassment, frustration, jealousy, or anxiety.

Part of an educator's role is to be knowledgeable of the special services available for parents of an autistic child. In some states Medicaid and Waiver services are accessible to parents of severely autistic children. Parents can contact the Developmental Disabilities Council in their state or their nearest Social Security Office to discover if they qualify for assistance. Networking with other affected families may also be recommended.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [www.kellybear.com]. 3/03

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