What is autism?

What is autism?

Autism is a brain disorder that can severely limit a child’s ability to communicate or interact with others. National statistics for how many children are affected by autism don’t yet exist. However, the National Institute for Mental Health estimates that three to six children out of every 1,000 suffer from autism. The condition strikes boys more often than girls. About half of all autistic children show developmental problems shortly after birth; the rest seem perfectly normal at first but lose their language and social skills usually between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. In many cases, the first sign of trouble comes when an infant or toddler seems to tune out everyone around him. Often, autistic children cry if they’re cuddled or even touched, a heartbreaking development for any parent. Although autism can take many forms, certain features stand out as hallmarks of the disorder.


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  • Language. Children with autism are slow to pick up words, and some never learn to talk at all. Those who do speak may have excellent pronunciation, but they often struggle with the rhythm, intonation, and meaning of speech. Many children with autism simply echo whatever they hear. (If you ask, “Would you like some milk?” the child might respond with, “You would like some milk.”) Others have rich vocabularies, but they may spend most of their time talking obsessively about favorite subjects; they may also have trouble understanding humor or irony.
  • Social interactions. Children with autism tend to live in a shell. As infants, they may ignore sounds, faces, and other things that usually captivate babies. As they grow older, autistic children rarely make eye contact and prefer to play by themselves. Far from being simply shy, children with autism often act totally indifferent to others. They may, however, be fascinated with moving objects, such as cars or fans, and become greatly attached to an inanimate thing, such as a stick or rubberband.
  • Intelligence. About three out of four children with autism suffer from serious mental retardation. But the brain abnormalities that make children autistic can also endow a select few with extraordinary, although highly specific, talents — an exceptional memory, say, or unusual ability in art, math, or music. Some can draw complex three-dimensional images while their peers are still scribbling; others can recall the weather from every day in their childhood. Even these gifted children, however, can struggle with basic tasks such as reading and writing. A child who has mastered Tchaikovsky may be baffled by Dr. Seuss.
  • Dangerous behaviors. Self-inflicted injuries are by far the most frightening aspect of having a child with autism. Autistic children sometimes bite themselves repeatedly or violently bang their heads against a wall whenever they feel stress or anxiety.
  • Daily living. Children with autism often become fixated on certain activities or objects. They may spend hours every day pacing the same piece of floor or rocking back and forth in the same chair. Others constantly flap their arms or flip their ears. Autistic children also demand precise order and structure to their lives. They may perform exacting, highly complicated rituals for daily tasks such as eating or going to bed. A misplaced piece of silverware, an unfolded blanket, or any other change in their routine can send them into a rage.

What causes autism?

Nobody knows for sure what causes the condition. According to the Mental Health America, several studies indicate that it may stem from a combination of factors, including exposure to a virus in the womb, an immune system disorder, and genetics. One thing is certain: It’s not the result of bad parenting.

How is autism treated?

Some children with autism will go on to have a normal adulthood, but the great majority have lifelong symptoms. While autism has no cure, many children with the condition learn to speak, read, write, and interact with others through behavioral and educational therapy. Such programs can also help them to master basic skills, such as using a toilet and getting dressed.

Doctors recommend sometimes as much as 40 hours a week of highly structured training sessions. Using this approach, a therapist may spend hours repeatedly asking your child to make eye contact, rewarding each success with a smile or applause. This technique is also used less intensively in natural, everyday settings and can be especially effective when started early in a child’s life. With proper training, you can turn a trip to the park into a quick lesson in social skills by praising your child for talking to and playing with other children.

The success of any treatment program will depend on a variety of factors, but your child’s intellectual level and amount of brain dysfunction will tend to dictate the best approach. For example, highly structured behavioral programs, which include methods for nonverbal communication, are most successful with children functioning at a lower-than-normal level.

One of the most controversial issues is the use of corporal punishment and other aversive techniques to control autistic behaviors. Be aware that the majority of researchers deplore programs that use these methods.

Whether the therapy is in-depth or more casual, experts agree that every child has his own talents and limitations. You’ll need to keep informed about current research in the field and to work closely with your child’s doctors to make sure he gets the help he needs.

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