What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting the way a person relates to and communicates with the people around him or her. In addition to impaired communication and social interaction, this brain development disorder is characterized by repetitive and restricted behavior.

Also known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder, autism occurs in 1 out of 1,000 children and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls. Autism is a disorder that falls under the Pervasive Developmental Disorder as cited in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM-IV).

Causes of autism

Autism is largely a genetic disorder. If a family has one autistic child, the odds of having a second child with the same condition is 1:20, which is 50 times greater compared to the general population. Several environmental factors have also been presumed to aggravate autism: prenatal stress, illicit drugs, smoking, alcohol, vaccines, certain foods, heavy metals, infectious disease, diesel exhaust, solvents, phthalates and phenols in plastic products, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and pesticides.

Symptoms of autism

People with autism may appear indifferent and aloof to people around them. They are often unable to function in a group, although they may interact with one person. They have difficulty understanding verbal or non-verbal communication. The world of sound and sight also poses problems to many autistic people. They may become obsessed by objects or react violently to sounds.

Autism is also characterized by repetitive behavior and impaired imagination, which may lead to problems distinguishing reality from fantasy. The severity of symptoms varies among individuals.

How autism is diagnosed?

Diagnosis of autism is based on behavior. It is defined in the DSM-IV as showing at least six symptoms, including qualitative impairment in social interaction and communication as well as restricted and repetitive behavior. These factors and behaviors are evaluated using several tests and observations performed by medical professionals in multidisciplinary fields, including child psychologists and pediatricians.

How autism is treated?

The major objective of treating autism is to lessen deficits and family distress. Another goal is to increase functional independence and improve quality of life. No single treatment is best and treatment is typically tailored to the child’s needs.

Behavior therapy and intensive special education programs early in life help the person obtain self-care and social skills. They also decrease maladaptive behaviors and symptom severity, while improving functioning claims that intervention by around age three years is crucial are not substantiated.

Other available approaches include developmental models, applied behavior analysis, structured teaching, social skills therapy, language and speech therapy, and occupational therapy.