Autism: An overview
Autism rates have skyrocketed. Here's how to identify the symptoms and what services to seek for an autistic child.
By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff
Autism is a disorder that adversely affects a child's neurological development. It ranges from mild to severe in its impact and is for this reason known as a spectrum disorder.
Children with severe autism are often identified before the age of 2, while children with the milder forms — high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome — may not be diagnosed until much later, sometimes not until adulthood.
Symptoms of autism
Autism disturbs a child's normal development of:
- Social interaction skills
- Verbal and non-verbal communication skills
- Cognitive function and IQ
Autism often comes with a host of debilitating physical problems, which may include:
- Gastro-intestinal disorders
- Sensory integration disorders
- An impaired immune system
Official diagnosis occurs when a psychologist or a physician observes a certain number of criteria, listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Some of the DSM criteria are:
- Inability to use nonverbal communication, such as eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions or body language
- Inability to form and maintain age-appropriate relationships
- Failure to seek to share interests or achievements with others
- Lack of emotional reciprocity
- Failure to develop normal spoken language skills
- Repetitive mannerisms, such as hand flapping or rocking
What causes autism?
While no one knows for sure what causes autism, there are many theories.
In the 1940s, when autism was first defined, a few prominent psychologists believed that it was the result of cold and unloving mothers, or "refrigerator mothers," as they were dubbed. This unfortunate theory was accepted by the medical establishment until the 1970s.
Today attention is focused on an emotional debate as to whether autism is primarily genetic in origin or caused by the mercury in childhood vaccinations in the 1990s. Many parents, researchers, and prominent individuals, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have raised concerns that vaccines containing a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal might have caused the surge in autism rates.
In 2004, the Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory group, concluded that there is no evidence of such a link, but urged that more research be done on autism. That hasn't satisfied critics who say that the scientific studies conducted to date have been inconclusive and inadequate. Generation Rescue, a parent organization that believes there is a link, states on their Web site that "[t]he IOM did not do any primary research, they simply reviewed what already had been done. . .This conclusion was a change from a similar review in 2001 by the IOM that stated the mercury-autism link was 'biologically plausible.'"
How common is it?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that an average of 1 in 110 children in the U.S have an ASD. The National Autism Association states that "autism spectrum disorders are 10 times more prevalent than they were just 10 years ago." The Autism Society of America says that "as many as 1.5 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism. And this number is on the rise. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10-17 percent per year."