HomeLearning DifficultiesAutism & Other Disorders

Autism: An overview

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By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

Biomedical and dietary interventions have not been scientifically proven to be effective.

Biomedical treatments may include:

  • Medications
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • A hormone called secretin
  • Chelation - a controversial method used to extract mercury and other toxins from the body

Dietary treatments include:

  • Gluten- and casein-free diets
  • Yeast-free diets
  • Special diets to treat various allergies

J. B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, laments that schools don't address the biological side of autism. "I don't understand the legalities associated with that so I just know it's something they are silent on. It's too bad. I wish they could at least inform parents of this route."

Handley suggests that parents "think of the biomedical approach as an umbrella term for addressing a child's physical symptoms. These kids suffer from gastro-intestinal distress and nutritional deficiencies well in excess of their neurotypical peers, and impaired immune systems and sleep disturbances. There are many different ways to address the many different symptoms."

What about private schools?

According to Ficcaglia, "There are private schools and there are private schools. For example, there's a set of schools referred to as nonpublic schools. These are specialized schools designed for children with disabilities and they're funded by the school district. But if a parent opts out of the system completely by going to a private school they would be losing services. That doesn't mean their child can't be provided with things like speech therapy or occupational therapy after school."

"There are very few kids with autism who can make it at a private school," says Ficcaglia. "Their behavioral needs are generally not what private schools are interested in taking. Private schools serve a select group of kids, generally speaking. Eighty percent of children with autism also have some degree of mental retardation or developmental delay."

Romaniec warns parents that "by choosing private over public you sometimes opt to lose services. You need to be aware of that. I hear from more parents that they don't want to deal with school districts anymore and they just want to move ahead paying everything out of pocket. I have cautioned many that you have 12 years of school ahead of you. Now is the time to fight for services that are appropriate for your child. You have to make long-term decisions, because you're going to be broke if you keep paying. Believe me, behavior therapy can cost you $40,000 a year. There are some private facilities that do nothing but treat autistic children. The majority of those are paid for by the school districts when parents properly negotiate on behalf of their child."

The costs of special education in the public schools

There is a growing concern that special education costs are impacting the ability of public schools to provide adequate regular education, as competition for scarce education dollars increases.

An American Institutes for Research study, issued in 2003, indicates that in 1999-2000 it cost $6,556 to educate a regular education student, but $12,639 to educate a special education student. Educating an autistic child, in particular, costs over $18,000, or 290% more than the regular education child.

Additional resources

Updated 2010

Comments from readers

"Mainstreaming is not always the best way to go for education depending on the level of autistic severity. I know of one teacher that has a fourth grade class of 23 kids including an autistic boy. She doesn't have an aide or anything, since only kindergarten through third grade get aides. The teachers at that school don't have any training on how to teach/help/work with the boy. She was just given some advice from the teachers who had had him previously. I wrote all this out to ask parents with autistic children to not put their children in school with an untrained teacher. Put your child in a school that has resources to accommodate your child. By putting your child in a normal classroom without an aide is very stressful on the teacher who has to help all the other children at the same time. "
" What are the FULL statistics for all other nations and cultures? there you will have the answer to the question of what the cause is. what are these nations' ties to the US INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX? where are our BIG PHARMA industry tentacles reacing? "
"To all the parents of the newly diagnosed reading this: Children under 3 years of age are eligible for Early Childhood Services -- this article ignores this and keeps saying special ed starts at 3. Government-provided Services start as soon as a disability is SUSPECTED. If you can, choose where you live wisely. Another commentor complained of lack of services in Florida. Generally, BLUE states that have strong social service safety nets are going to have a variety of services for your child. RED and LOW TAX states are not going to provide your child with what he or she needs. Also, you are now officially among the biggest supporters of public schools. Private schools don't want your kid and if you want your kid mainstreamed as much as possible, he/she is going to do better in schools with smaller classes and the budget to hire aides and other support personnel. Please remember, studies show that children who are mainstreamed and included do better in the long run. "
"I have done a lot of reading on this subject since my daughter's diagnosis seven years ago. This overview is one of the best I have found. Thank you. "
"1978 my middle son Joshua L Arnett broaderline autism, we found out when he was 15 months old that he could be, as it turned out he was. At that time not much was really know about it, I was a young mother 21 three kids. I worked with my child not really know he was autism, age of 19 mos. he would rock back and forth on sofa. Could not touch him, no eye contact, and no words. It was hard, but one day he was rocking I sat next to him, trying to figure out just to get him to look at me if I could get just a smile from him it would make my world. So he was rocking I just decide ok I rock with you must feel good that's why he did it. I got my eye contact, but more then anything I got a smile. I learned from him, how to connect. no books no Dr's with degrees just a little boy and a mother who loved him. His first words were 3 yrs old studder bad. But a teacher K. just told me to have him repeat his words just tell him to slow down. And that little guy and his mother worked as a t! eam, I let him tell me. I let him relax and not pushed him. Now he is a 32 yrs old has a beautiful wife and 2 beautiful kids. He owns his own home, has a great job and very well respected. But when he fills like the walls a falling in on him I just explain to his wife just get him to talk about it and he will be ok. He has a very High IQ, and he knows about his autism. We just didn't make a big deal about it, we let him be him. We just made sure that we were there when he was ready. At the age of 6-7 he could read a newspaper but he couldn't tie his shoe or say one word without studdering. Most simples things he could do, but he understood and read college level. Sometime we just need to listen to them and really see who they are, but when we try to push them into a round hole but they are a squre block. I saw him I let him tell me, who he was and is. Sometimes we need to stop and listen to the birds and smell the flowers. But instead we just buy a book and a tape cause we ! don't want to take the time. We want a quick fix we want a ans! wer now. I stop and I listen and I saw my son. I am not saying to stop listening to Dr's or not help them cause they are all different. All I am saying stop and look at that little child, and see them and listen to them. Sometimes you don't need words or sounds to hear them. I am bless for I ask God to give me the wisdom and a strong heart. So that I may understand not just the one child but to help me rise and to understand if someone else is going through what I have gone through. Listen to them and hear their words when there is no sound."
"Hello my name is Aida. I am the mother of two young boys with autism. Just moved to Las Vegas and want to meet other families theat are living with Autism."
"Hello, My name Arianne Williams, and i have a 5year old daughter with Autism, she really doesnt have a bad trate of it, she is just not verbal. I had a really hard time getting her into a school that i felt that was comfortable for my daughter. With her not being verbal its hard for me to trust people with my daughter, because i love her so much, and i just want the best for her. She has want to 3 different perschools, and i feel like they try as much as they can, but its up to us to really be the teachers here. I no sometimes it may be hard, and u may get frustrated, but just keep faith, and pray. Hopefully one day soon they will come up with a cure for Autism for all the kids, and this will be over. If anyone have any questions for me or would like any advice about anything please feel free to email me. Thanks ARIANNE Williams"
" My wife and I have a child diagnosed with autism and it seems that funding and programs are sometimes scarse . and we do noy know a soul with an autistic child .we would love to meet people in the same boat sort of speak. the resources here in florida are basicly first come first serve . and we are trying to find information on programs constantly and it just seem,s that its a never ending battle unless you have millions to afford all the therapy,s and so any info would be great and greatly appreciated.thank you Troy&jennifer."
"You may want to add to your resource list. The website is being revised to include a parent question section and extended information on Applied Behavior Analysis."
"My new next door neighbor has a 3-year-old autistic son and I want to learn how to interact with him. We live in an apartment complex and he pounds on my door a lot, and on my bedroom wall. I want to handle this situation in a productive win/win manner. He's a sweet little boy and I know that, armed with information, I can not only tolerate the behavior, but enjoy interaction. Thanks"
"As a parent who has been doing private research in the field of vaccines for the past 20 years, I have seen the deliberate attempts by drug cos. via our 'health' dept regulatory agencies to negate and/or squelch info relating to autism and other developmental disorders caused by vaccines. The current hype of 'thimerosol-free' vaccines, which is a misnomer, in that the FDA can define a vaccine as mercury or thimerosol free if it falls below the defined threshold of acceptability of micrograms of ethyl mercury per kilo of body weight which is 0.10 mcgs. of ethyl mercury per kilo of daily exposure. There is no such thing as a truly mercury free vaccine. Independent lab tests of 4 different lots of vaccines labeled 'thimerosol-free' have shown miniscule to large amounts of ethyl mercury still present. Ethyl mercury binds to the protein antigens within the vaccine serum and cannot be filtered out entirely. Thimerosol is used in the initial stages of vaccine production and is sti! ll present in the final product. Children are very susceptible to the neuro-toxic effects of mercury and aluminum, in addition to ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), formaldehyde, msg, squalene, carbolic acid, phenols, streptomycin, aborted fetal tissue cells, dead animal pus, etc. The accumulative exposure is damaging their brains and the rate of autism is now 1 in 86 boys and 1 in 150 nationwide. Boys are 4x more likely to develop autism due to testosterone not being as protective as estrogen. Glutathione and vitamin C levels are also important protective agents, however, they cannot shield entirely the effects of these destructive ingredients. I'm always amazed that so many parents don't ask their doctors, who they mistakely consider the guardians of their child, what are the ingredients in the insert label. They look at food labels, but not the label of an inoculation that can cause damage. Within 12 hours of birth, babies are routinely given a hep B shot containing 12.5 mcg! s. of ethyl mercury. 12.5 to 25 mcgs. of ethyl mercury is als! o contai ned in the flu and DT (diptheria-tetanus) shots. No wonder our children are damaged. And by the way, vaccines are NOT mandatory for school admittance. Filling out the immunization schedule is the only 'mandatory' requirement which has exemptions available on the back side for those who choose not to have their child inoculated."
"My name is Alice. My son, Karl, has been diagnosed with autism. He is now 17 years old. He wasn't diagnosed until later in life because he didn't fit the stereotype of an autistic child, he was too friendly, alert, and had good eye contact. The public school system diagnosed my son as SLD at age 3, TMH at age 5, and I finally learned that he is autistic recently. I agree with your article about how the public school system isn't quite up to educating our children, and for the most part are not able to diagnose our children! It has been my experience that the professionals at the school are only concerned with a standard test score which is not really an appropriate tool to declare one's intelligence. It is more important to address the child's need, provide the appropriate teaching methods and learning strategies, provide individuals with lack of communication skills a means in which they can express and exchange ideas/thoughts. Without any level of communication, it! is impossible to come to a conclusion of a person's intelligence. I believe children with autism are misunderstood, underestimated, and tend to be neglected not by professionals who don't care, but by professionals who do not have the qualifications or experience to do so. Until the Department of Education begins to understand their responsibility to our children, and create programs in which it is mandatory for teachers and therapists to attend we are never going to get a handle on this problem. We have to consider the growth rate of this disability, and understand that the autistic child is not always someone elses' problem, but it may be yours some day. If it ever does happen to you personally, will you be up to the never ending battles at the IEP meetings, the predictions of doom and gloom, the words can't and won't, or we don't have to? I personally don't understand why a system would challenge parents to such lengths in regards to helping the child in question. It seems that fighting only delays intervention. Isn't it the right of a child to receive an appropriate public education funded by the taxpayers for the benefit of the child. It seems to me parents have enough to fight without having to fight the professionals who are there and b! eing paid to help them. "
"Parents please be aware that TOXINS are linked to autism. I understand that education is extremely important to help austistic children. can also take control within your homes. Consumable household products are a big problem. Chemicals are linked to the cause of autism. There are safer, better, shopping alternatives that will promote the health of autistic children. We are finding that the elimination of toxins in households are extremely beneficial to autistic children. If you are a parent, school or organization, who wants to know more about safer alternatives, please feel free to email me."
"I found this site really interesting as I have just been told by my son's school that he is mentally retarded.. altho a doctor has diagnosed him as autistic/mild-moderate and mild-moderate adhd."
"found this article very helpfull, one of my grandaughters has autism , we found out a couple of years ago , her parents are brilliant , they have tried all the above methods . and over the last year and a half , she has inproved greatly, i would appericate any help or comments you can give me and my wife to helps us help her . we would love to know the best things to say or do , or any suggestions so we can help her parents thank you michael"
"My son was diagnosed with PPD-NOS at the age of 3 which was really discovered due to severe speech delays. Luckily, his pre-school teacher informed me of the State of Maine's Child Development Service where he started a special preschool and received speech, OT and PT. The IEPs are hard work, but the parents must remain their child's best advocate. I have heard some people having better results by hiring lawyers to act as advocates, but I have not required this. In keeping close contact with his school and his abilities, we actually went to 3 preschools in 2 years. It is very hard to say the state of Maine has a great autistic program as the state is a big place. Even within the area of Portland preschool's changed based on directors and teachers hired. He finished Kindergarten in Westbrook in 2007 and although he had excellent services there it was still limited based on spending costs. This year, for 1st grade, we moved to Cape Elizabeth and I could not be happier. This is a city obviously dedicated to Special Needs children and they have a reputation of hiring the best. They have already created an excellent IEP for my child, significantly above that which Westbrook could offer, and without the need for any parental pressure. If anyone is looking in Southern Maine, you cannot go wrong with Cape Elizabeth."
"Dear Folks, I have a friend whose daughter is Autistic. I am simply researching any info I can gather for him and his daughter. Please send me any links or info you have on early symptoms and early ways to help small children with Autism. ThX!!! Ben Aguilar"
"I have a son who has autism and I have been running a Son-Rise program with him for 1 year now. He has made great progress and I noticed you did not mention this program. Especially for parents who home school, the Son-Rise program would help them a great deal."
"My daughter is 8yrs old and she has autism. I think that a lot of parents don't know their options. When choosing a public school it also hurts because there are things that are not known because the school district does not want to provide it. parents learn your rights for the best of your children. I am now trying to find out what other options I may have because my daughter does attend a public school and by choosing another school for her I will have to pay out of pocket and I just can't afford that."
"To the people moving to the Seattle area: UW has a great autism program. Also, my PDD-NOS son had a really positive experience at Sorenson Early Childhood Education in the Northshore School District in his 3-5 years. We're trying to find him a good kindergarten fit right now in the private sector, but I've heard some special needs parents talk really good things about Kokanee Elementary's autism program, if you want to go public. Good luck!"
"Thank you!!! I am so glad thay I accidentally found your website. Having done some research, I found this website most informative about parental rights in the school system because evidently there are scool systems and school systems!"
"I,m looking for best program for m y autistic son who is a high school now and is 16 year old . I,m in Boca and looking for some answers . can anyone help sincerely ? any private schoolfor autistic kids with best rep?"
"All websites should deal with the problems of relocating. I am looking to leave NY but have no idea where to move to. Someone should should post a column or a link that tells parents what are the best cities in the US to live in with children with autism. It should describe whats available and the ease/difficulty of finding such essentials as schools, day care, after school programs, medical facilities,doctors who specialize in treating people with autism and any other relevant information. It is very deplorable that not enough funds are being used to provide services that are badly needed. It's frustrating to find out that while I might have found an area with great schools, I then find out day care is virtually non existent in that area. "
"I am glad that I have run across a website where I can vent to parents, educators and loved ones of children that suffer with Autism. I am the mother of two boys that suffer from Asperger's Syndrome. I previously located to Houston, TX from Florida to be able to give them a better opportunity to be educated within a school system that offered autism programs. And I must say that I give Kodos to Texas! I really enjoyed that my children attended 5 star schools, but due to domestic violence we moved to Beaufort, SC where the school system is in the dumps and they do not offer any programs. I am in the process of trying to locate information on schools in Savannah and Charleston, so that I can make the best choice for my children. I am willing to relocate to the far ends of the earth if necessary. If anyone has insight on this issue, please contact me."
"Kudos to for posting an updated article with helpful info, suggestions and hope. My child was born with autism, diagnosed at 20 months, and just graduated from kindergarten at a private school (1st grade curriculum) where no one knows about her history of autism and I do not plan on telling them. When I first started to learn about autism, there was so much information, so I asked myself one question: 'will this help me treat my child?' If it was a debate about cause or an article about neurology, I hit 'delete'. I spent my time learning first only what was relevant to treatment. Early intervention is the best chance, the clock is ticking, and you don't have time to waste on anything you cannot apply to treatment. Almost all services we got for free were not helpful, but those we paid for were. It sounds awful to spend 5 figures, but it is less expensive than caring for a dependent child for a lifetime. Each child is an individual, so concentrate your limite! d resources (time & money) on what your child's strongest symptoms are. For us it was auditory processing disorder and chronic diarrhea. For you it might be something else. For beginners, see article Read the whole TACA website. Read the ARI websites You can do great to have many therapies simultaneously (medical, behavioral, speech, etc.) You can train yourself to help your child by reading the book More Than Words from"
"I don't think the government does much to help autism children."
"I am terrifed about moving my son out of the system that he is in. It took me over a year to get services set up for my son. He was diagnosed shortly after turning 2.5 years old and was in special Ed school as soon as he was 3 and we are in Hawaii. The people are great but their services are hard to come by and lets not talk about IEPs, it is as thick as a brick because NOTHING is done if it is not in the IEP, and I am afraid that if I stay in Hawaii he will soon be in the normal elementary school system and Hawaii is ranked one of the lowest in test scores but it has taken me this long to get services and darn it, I want him to get them! What should I do?"
"The TEACCH program is helpful to some kids who are autistic but by no means essential to all of them. It is overapplied, overdone and misapplied when it is not necessary. It is a valid tool to use and really helpful to some children, especially during their early primary years. I just wish that the same attention would be given to other valid strategies that are helpful to the many high-functioning autistic children whose abilities do not require TEACCH. "
"My son is autiste 5yrs Robert Noah old i am so glad to find this article about every thing i knows and what i did not. Some thing i always try to share and ready tells my son docteur most time the childreen with no verbal (speech delay) most of them is not autiste ;1. Is not exact 100% the screening it was succes most mistak coulb start there .2.It some thing maybe ignoring to some culturs to make sure is not 'under the tangue' a tissu need to be cut of like a litle surgery . Generaly by experience to the country where i am originaly from it work and last thing is you 3.Need to work hard to the environment specialy for the kinds of children use to talk before and one day no thing come out again ;this factors is very neglict to the big country some time ,the medecine go so far away to find the solution.To africa it check this early to the baby when it cry or when is had age approximative to talk .I wish wherever the science doing autiste is realy and i beleive the peoples work very hard to make this success.Juste never give up for us children. BIG HUG to all children in the word like my Robert Noah thanks "
"All of you ranting about mercury poisoning need to read ALL of the studies. There is definitive, double blind research -- much of it done in other countries, far away from the influence of the 'evil' corporations in the U.S -- that shows quite conclusively that there is NO correlation between autism and the mercury that was once used as a preservative in vaccines. Parents who choose to not vaccinate their children are not only placing their own kids at a MUCH higher risk of some pretty scarey - life threatening diseases (MUCH higher risk than even the bogus risk of cases of autism per vaccinated child), but the presence of non-immunized children in the general population places EVERYONE at risk -- especially other children, even those who ARE immunized. I have a son with autism, and I have the means to sue anyone. If there was ANY real scientific data that showed a correlation between vaccines and autism, I'd make it my life's work to get the drug companies to fork over millions. The fact is that the reaearch is conslusive that there is NO correlation. It breaks my heart to see parents of autistic children -- especially those who are just finding out their kid has autism -- to waste energy and time on this nonsense -- time and energy that could be better spent on REAL education about the condition and investigating REAL answers for their kids' treatment."
">From New York, 2/8/06: In response to the 'teacher from Oregon'. I'm so tired of this 'don't want to be bothered attitude' some of these teachers have. Teachers like this don't want to share running 'their' classrooms with a Special Ed. teacher and an aide or two. They (these teachers and some district officials) should realize this would address the issues that this very teacher complains about. Do 'these' teachers feel threatened when they have to deal with the Special Ed. teacher and tolerate the special ed. students that require the Special Ed. teacher? Each school district seems to have their own way to define 'inclusionary settings'. If the school officials and Board of education don't offer better solutions then we will always have this rift. It will always be Regular Ed. VS Special Ed. School budgets are subject to vote. When parents don't support and vote for budget increases, then again we are not solving these issues. Are we that far from solving the mystery of how to appropri! ately educate students with disabilities? NO! Schools offer different services but not a full range of services. Each school district should have classes of self-contained, inclusion, intregated and mainstreamed options and all related services. The other problem is all disabilities are thrown together in some kind of melting pot. This does not appropriately address the different disorders effectively. Autism is different from Downs and so on. These children of varying disabilities cannot all be educated the same way or one way. Until this is recognized and acted on, we again remain at this level. It all takes money. The money is out there but it doesn't get here. There is always money for sports. If the budget increases don't include providing services for the special ed. students, then we lose again. This teacher adds further insult here by suggesting the regular ed. students and their rights are subject to what? Having to put up with the special ed.students? ! Or worse, why bother. Those with disabilities need advocates! to figh t for their rights. Are special ed. students without rights? Regular ed. students and special ed. students have the same rights? or no?.... This teacher worries that this country's education system cannot compete with other nations. If we all cannot help one another, tolerate and have some empathy, then how can we even begin to worry about measuring up to other nations. Ridiculous. Status seems to be more important. People with disabilities didn't ask for this nor were they born with disabilities by choice or for something they did wrong. What about the kids that do the bullying? Are they not tolerated? No they get away with it. How about the regular ed. students that are disrespectful and many of these students are disrupting the classrooms. What's the perspective on this????????? What's their excuse? This teacher disgusts me and for a whole hour has to put up with this autistic boy. Better count your blessings and be grateful. This teacher worries that the ! gifted children are losing out. The gifted children have programs to further their gifts and don't have to fight for their rights. This teacher comments about the 'poverty' labed population and their education. Sounds like sterotyping and some discrimination. Doesn't anyone realize the positive influence regular ed. students provide for the special ed. students in these inclusion classes. Obviously there are teachers and parents that do not instill and promote any of this in their 'regular ed. students'. How do you sleep at night!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Do you have any integrity?"
"I realize that many of the 'facts' that you are quoting here may appear to be accurate. However, they are slanted from the perspective of the Neurotypical community. There are many mentally retarded children with Autistic Behaviors and Traits and we on the spectrum consider tehm to be part of our community. However, I beg to differ that 80% of people with straight Autism with no other co-morbid conditions are mentally retarded. As the mother of 3 children on the spectrum, the wife of a wonderful man on the spectum and a diagnosed Aspie myself I see many Autistic people. The inability to communicate or the lack of desire to communicate in a 'normal' way does not make us meantally retarded. I am living proof of that. My IQ tests have proven me out to be eligible to be a member of the 'geekiest' group out there MENSA. However, my social phobias tend to keep me close to home and out of the limelight and very far away from groups. My oldest diagnosed child's IQ is three points b! elow genius and he is a diagnosed Aspie. My non-verbal children are not delayed in any way that does not directly relate to their ability to understand our expectations of them. Maybe the real problem here is acceptance of Autistic people as a neurologically defined sub-culture rather that a group of people with a disorder that needs to be eradicated, educated away, ignored, or pitied."
"Why not tell the truth that it is the mercury in the MRM shot doctors give to very young children. My son was fine until that shot and he begain to digrace to being hving austim. If not, why would Majoruty leader in the senate try and pass a bill that would exempt drug companys from legal recourse. As for those studies, they were conducted by the drug companies for CDC. "
"My son is 2 1/2. He was diagnosed with autism 2 months ago.In hindsight alot makes since now, at birth he was hypotonic (no startle reflex) at 6 months they said his head was measuring large which started a chain of ct scans to make sure the fluid they found at the first scan wasn't increasing with no increase the scans stopped. We along with the doctors started documenting his developmental delays. He was then referred to early intervention. In Alabama at 30 months of age the county school board takes over from early intervention with his education plan. My husband and I are not comfortable with him being in a public school and are looking into a private school focused on his abilities within his disability. My stepson was born having siezures, at one he had brain surgery to disconnect the right side of his brain where the siezures could no longer disrupt. He has been able to do everything the doctors said he would not. He has alot of autistic characteristics but doctors sa! y it's because some parts of his brain are not functioning properly from the disconnect. I have a 4 1/2 year old son that they diagnosted with ADHD. My concern is how much of these disabilities are hereditery? And with some of you that has researched Thermerasol (the mercury contained in immunizations) have you found connection with your childrens disabilities and immunizations? I ask this because I am terrified that my 7 month old twin girls are going to be affected by their immunizations. Could these things be hereditery that the mercury is triggering in each of them? How do I ask for the shots without the perservative Thermerasol? I am very new to all of this and concerned that if I don't stock pile all the info I can I might miss something that is crucial at the time I am so scared of missing something that can help."