What is commonly referred to as “Autism” includes five disorders now often called “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD).
The five are:
- Autistic Disorder
- Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder (not otherwise specified)
- Rett’s Disorder
- Asperger’s Syndrome.
Autism is a brain difference that can affect an individual’s ability to: communicate, relate to people and the environment in typical ways, understand and respond to sensory input (e.g. pain, touch, sound, taste), control movement, and learn and think in typical ways. The effects on learning and functioning can range from mild to severe. Even in its milder forms, functioning in socialization and communication can be very impaired.
Autism occurs in as many as 1 in 150 births nationally (Center for Disease Control), 1 in 122 births in Massachusetts (Mass. Dept. of Public Health). It is four times more common in males than females. Autism is found throughout the world in families of all racial, social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. There are as many as 1.5 million people with Autism in the United States, and as many as 4,800 in Western Massachusetts. Recent estimates place the number of children from 3 to 18 alone at more than 1,100.
Although the causes of Autism are still unknown, research suggests that there is a strong genetic component with a variety of external and environmental triggers. No factors in the psychological environment of the child cause Autism.
There is great diversity among individuals with Autism. They vary in the extent to which they display the characteristics of Autism. Characteristics include:
- difficulty relating to people, objects and events
- repetitive movements such as rocking or spinning, head banging and hand twisting
- atypical reactions to sensory stimuli e.g. touch, sound, taste, pain
- insistence on certain routines
- difficulty with change and transitions
- limited or poor eye contact
- impaired communication skills
- use of toys and objects in an unconventional manner, little imaginative play
- may have typical or exceptional abilities in specific areas (e.g. putting puzzles together) but lack other basic skills (e.g. can’t follow directions)
Most specialists agree that a child should be evaluated for Autism immediately if he or she has:
- not babbled or cooed by one year
- not gestured, pointed or waved by one year
- not spoken a single word by 16 months
- not spoken a two-word phrase by two years
- experiences a loss of any language skills at any age
Research and experience indicate the following:
- Early diagnosis and appropriate intervention are most helpful in the future development of children and adults with Autism, but help at any age may make a significant difference. There are many examples of adults who live quite typical lives who had severe difficulties as children and adults.
- Services and support must be tailored to the needs of the individual child and be delivered in a consistent, comprehensive, and coordinated fashion.
- The inclusion of children and adults with Autism with typical peers in all activities using appropriate supports is beneficial to all.
- Many people with Autism respond best to structured, individualized educational programs. Programs using positive approaches based on a careful analysis of context, functions of behaviors, individual learning styles and information processing irregularities, have produced effective and durable results in teaching new skills and changing many of the behaviors typically displayed by children and adults with Autism. In addition, sensory integration, social skills training, dietary changes, vitamins, medications, and other interventions have also been used with success in some instances to address specific issues.