a father playing with a child who has autism

Understanding Autism

Autism is a disorder that is prevalent but still widely misunderstood. To the uninformed, this condition may be seen simply as a problem with behavior and socialization, but it’s actually much more complicated and serious than this.

It’s estimated that about 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with some form of autism today, which is an increase of more than 100% since the condition became well-known in medical literature during the 1940s. Because of this, it’s critically important that people have a solid understanding of how this disorder works and how it can be treated. The following overview will help to acquaint you with the basics of autism—including official terminology for the condition, what causes it, and what symptoms to look for in children.

Autism Terminology

Since the creation of the diagnosis, researchers have significantly changed the ways that they think and speak about autism. Before the publication of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was published in 2013, psychologists had a number of distinct diagnoses for different disorders that affected social and communicative abilities. However, with the advent of the DSM-5, these disorders are now grouped together under the category of autism spectrum disorder (sometimes shortened to just autism spectrum or ASD).

This reclassification acknowledges the fact that autism does not affect every individual in the same way. Instead, this approach conceptualizes different levels or types of autism that are different but still intimately related.

Autism Causes

Autism research is still not able to provide a definitive answer as to what actually causes autism, but the general consensus is that there is no singular reason for its existence. However, scientists have been able to propose several different potential factors that may be responsible. These include everything from genetics to environmental factors during prenatal development. Here is a look at some of the more common and widely supported causes that have been put forward.

  • Genetics: There is some evidence to indicate that children with certain genetic disorders may be more prone to developing autism. Two of these potentially related disorders include Rett Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome—both of which cause the brain to develop abnormally and create physical and intellectual disabilities.
  • Environmental Factors: It’s also been hypothesized that autism may be caused by environmental factors that occur either before or after birth. Being exposed to certain viral diseases, especially rubella, in the womb can adversely affect a child’s brain development and puts them at a higher risk for autism and other developmental or psychiatric disorders. It’s also been proposed that fetal exposure to grain alcohol may increase the risk for autism. However, the link between the two has not been established as strongly the link between virus exposure and autism. Similarly, lead poisoning and vitamin D deficiencies have been proposed as possible factors influencing the development of autism after birth, but more research is needed to confirm these hypotheses.

It’s important to note that vaccines (especially the MMR vaccine) have been put forth by some as a possible cause of autism. However, research surrounding this issue has been unable to establish a link between the two and has come under scrutiny for being unduly manipulated. To date, there has been only one published study arguing that vaccination causes autism. This study was authored by Andrew Wakefield and published in The Lancet, a medical research journal. However, the journal later retracted the publication after it was discovered that Wakefield had received funds from an organization looking  for harmful evidence to use against manufacturers of vaccines.

Autism Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of autism can range from mild to severe, depending on a person’s individual case, but most center around difficulties with social interaction and communication.

From a social standpoint, people with autism often have difficulty developing the ability to sustain healthy, normal relationships. This includes things like an inability to maintain eye contact or read facial expressions and other body language. Additionally, people with autism often have difficulty relating to the interests of their peers, and they may also have difficulty feeling empathy for people experiencing negative emotions like sadness or pain.

Communication is also an issue for people with autism. In fact, it’s estimated that as many as 40% of people with the disorder never speak at all. If a person does speak, he or she often has a preoccupation with certain words or phrases that they may repeat over and over again—a phenomenon known as echolalia. Additionally, autism makes initiating and continuing conversations very difficult, and people are often unable to recognize when others use devices like humor or irony in their communications.

Because many of the symptoms associated with autism revolve around talking and other forms of communication, it can often be difficult to recognize the signs in young children—who normally have communication difficulties. For this reason, autism is normally diagnosed after the age of 3, even though in some cases it may be present from birth. Additionally, if symptoms are mild enough, parents may not even realize that their child has autism for many years, if ever.

Autism Treatments

There is no cure for autism, but there are still treatments available that can help people manage their symptoms. Deciding on specific treatments will depend on a person’s unique case and the severity of his or her symptoms.

Behavioral training is one of the most common tools used to help people with autism develop communication and interpersonal skills. This approach can take many forms, but it generally focuses around using positive reinforcement and observation to help children thrive in social environments. For example, students with only mild forms of autism may be placed in a traditional classroom setting and encouraged to observe their peers as examples to model their own behavior on. If a child’s problems are significant enough, he or she may also work with a specialist one-on-one, sometimes for up to 40 hours a week.

Medication is not used to treat autism directly, but it may be used in order to address other problems associated with the disorder—such as depression, hyperactivity, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, this approach is typically viewed as less preferable than addressing a person’s issues with behavioral therapy.