What is Autism?
Autism is a severe, lifelong developmental disorder, with characteristics and symptoms that can be confusing and often puzzling. The condition is difficult to explain and understand, particularly since it occurs so rarely - 10 to 12 in every 10,000 people.
In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner described several children who displayed similar symptoms, that he called "autistic". The disorder was presumed to be caused by an emotional disturbance, perhaps the result of "refrigerator" parenting and a lack of warm, supportive care. Evidence today clearly indicates that this is NOT the case. There are several theories, but no conclusive answers about the cause, or perhaps causes, of autism. The one thing we are sure of is that autism is NOT caused by deficient parenting.
Symptoms may be present from birth, although they may not be noticed until a child is two or three, when one would normally expect to see the development of language usage. Looking back, parents may report that the child was an unusually good and quiet baby who rarely cried, or a very difficult baby who cried all the time, spit up excessively and slept only for short periods. One of the most frustrating and confusing characteristics may be the child's inability to develop affectionate relationships. She/He may resist being held and cuddled, and may not even seem to recognize familiar faces. This disorder occurs about four times more frequently in males than in females.
A diagnosis of autism requires impairments in all of the following areas of development:*
A) Social Interaction: People with autism often do not relate well to other people (particularly peers), have difficulty learning to play with others, can not effectively use non-verbal behaviours such as eye-to-eye gaze and facial expressions while interacting and have difficulty sharing information and experiences with others.
B) Communication: The impairment includes both spoken language and non-verbal skills (gestures, body postures, imaginative play). People with autism may not develop speech (approximately 50%), or may have difficulty with speech production and/or conversational skills.
C) Restricted Repertoire of Behaviours, Activities and Interests: This includes some of the unusual behaviours that are often associated with autism such as: stereotyped body movements (hand flapping, toe walking, rocking, etc.), insistence upon following non-functional routines or rituals, preoccupations with parts of objects (wheels, handles, etc.), and an abnormally intense or focused preoccupation with a very limited range of interests.
A number of other features are associated with the disorder and may or may not be present. These may include difficulties in eating, sleeping and toiletting, unusual fears, learning problems, repetitive behaviours, self-injury and peculiar responses to sensory input. Individuals with autism may have any or all of these associated features in various combinations.
It is important to realize that persons with autism differ, both in the number of characteristics they display, and the severity of their symptoms. Although the disorder is severe and lifelong, symptoms change over time, and many skills can develop with appropriate instruction. Adults with autism display a range of skills, living and working in many environments and requiring various levels of support.
If you would like further information about autism, please feel free to contact The Geneva Centre for Autism.
*Reference: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, 4th Edition, 1994.
DSM IV lists Autistic Disorder as one of five subtypes of Pervasive Developmental Disorders. There are 12 possible diagnostic characteristics, grouped in three categories: Social Interaction; Communication; Behaviour, Activities and Interests. At least 6 of the 12 characteristics must be present to receive a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder.
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