Autism is a developmental disability that results from a neurological disorder that affects the brain. It is characterized by severely impaired social interaction, including communication problems and repetitive, unusual, or extremely limited interests and activities. Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) which include Asperger’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), and Rett’s Disorder.
Autism affects approximately 1.5 million Americans, and is alarmingly on the rise. According to the Autism Society of America (ASA), the incidence of autism could grow to four million Americans by the next decade. Although autism knows no social, racial, or ethnic boundaries, it is three to four times likelier to occur in males and usually appears during the first three years of life.
It bears noting that some autistic people have savant skills, which are usually spatial in nature, such as special talents in art, music and math. But although this phenomenon is commonly associated with autism and has been popularized in the media, as in the movie Rain Man, only about ten percent of autistic individuals possess such skills and savantism is not unique to autistic people.
There are numerous noted behaviors that are potential indicators of autism. A core group of behaviors doctors use to determine if further evaluation should be conducted for a more definitive diagnosis include:
- Difficulty making friends with peers
- Difficulty initiating or sustaining conversations
- Lack of social and imaginative play
- Unusual or repetitive use of language
- Limited interests with abnormal levels of focus or intensity
- Preoccupation with certain subjects or interests
- Meticulous adherence to specific rituals or routines
- Repetitive body motions
Evidence is growing that autism is caused by a variety of problems, although many of the theories of its causes, both genetic and environmental, remain controversial. Some research has shown that dyslexia and/or depression are common in one or both sides of the family of autistic individuals. There is also some evidence that a compromised or weakened immune system points to a genetic link to autism. If parents have one autistic child, additional children they have are likelier also to become autistic. Many researchers speculate that autism will eventually be associated with three to five genes.
Potential environmental links to autism include exposure to viruses such as rubella during pregnancy and certain vaccinations. A mother with triplets all diagnosed with autism and rats that developed neurological problems after being exposed to the drug terbutaline during pregnancy suggest a potential increased risk of developing autism due to the usage of terbutaline during pre-term labor. For more information on the connection between terbutaline and autism as well as the other side effects of terbutaline, please visit the following websites:
A correlation has also been shown in certain cases between autism and those living in communities with increased pollution and toxins. There are numerous studies underway attempting to explain these observed correlations.
While there is no cure for autism, there are behavioral interventions and therapies designed to remedy specific symptoms. The efficacy of these treatments varies from person to person although, generally, better results tend to be obtained in those who begin treatment early. Many treatments continue to be controversial, however. And although many of them show promise, only the efficacy of the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) approach has been scientifically verified.
Medications sometimes prescribed by doctors to handle symptoms of autism include:
- Antidepressants – depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Anticonvulsant drugs – seizures
- Stimulant drugs, such as those used for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) – impulsivity, hyperactivity
- Anti-psychotic medications – to treat severe behavioral problems
A good autism resource is – http://www.autism-society.org/