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Introduction Autism Essay

Autism and Related Pervasive Developmental Disorders

A Neurological Illness Characterized by Social, Communication and Behavioral Deficits

Autism is a neurological disorder (a "brain" disease) characterized by the presence of severe communication, language and social deficits in affected persons. It is the most well known of several pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) diagnoses which begin in early childhood and continue throughout life, affecting most every aspect of life along the way. While autistic peoples' cognitive (thinking and language) and social skills are typically developmentally delayed compared to their peers, their motor (movement) skills develop in a more normal fashion.

Specific social interaction, communication and behavioral deficits must be present before the diagnosis of autism is appropriate. Though all people with Austim people show the same specific pattern of impairments, the severity of these impairments vary from case to case, with some people demonstrating relatively mild impairments and others demonstrating severe impairments.

From a very early age, children with autism demonstrate a fundamental difficulty in properly orienting towards other people and in processing social and non-verbal forms of communication, such as eye contact and facial expression. For instance, a typical infant is generally responsive to adult caregiver facial expressions and will imitate those expressions. If a parent smiles at an infant, that infant is likely to smile back. This is not the case with infants with autism, who often lack the ability to appreciate faces or socially conveyed feelings. Children with autism are also typically delayed (sometimes severely so) in their development of spoken language and conversational skills.

Individuals with autism also tend to demonstrate odd and socially inappropriate behaviors. They frequently act with indifference towards others, and remain isolated from their surroundings. Many obsess or fixate on certain objects or on particular topics they find personally interesting. They may insist on talking about a topic they find fascinating even when others around them are not interested. They may act out odd stereotyped movements and gestures. They may demonstrate an intense need for order and sameness with regard to their environment, and react with temper tantrums when their prized order is disturbed. In general, people with autism's lack of social awareness makes it difficult or impossible for them to successfully navigate through everyday situations.

Symptoms of autism are not present from birth. Most children with autism appear to develop typically during the first year of life. Symptoms of autism become apparent between eighteen and thirty-six months of life. Forty percent of cases are diagnosed by age three. Autism is an equal-opportunity illness; No particular race or social class tends to get it more frequently than another. However, it is far more likely (four to five times more likely) to occur in males than it is in females.

Once established, autistic symptoms continue into adulthood. The symptoms range in severity (across individuals) from relatively mild to severe and debilitating. In all but mild cases, autism interferes with typical development and makes it difficult or impossible for affected adults to live and work independently. Though intervention cannot reverse the course of autism, it can result in symptom improvement and a greater capability for independence. For intervention to be maximally successful, however, it must be delivered early in the developmental process, shortly after the diagnosis of autism is first made.

Autism appears to be occurring more frequently than was the case in the past. The prevalence (rate of occurrence) of autism has risen from five in every ten-thousand in the mid 1990's to one in every one-hundred and sixty-six in 2005. The numbers are leveling off and seem to be on the decline, but the rise in the number of cases of autism is staggering. There is no known reason for the dramatic increase, but awareness may play a significant role. Many more children who have mild forms of autism may be being diagnosed simply because parents and pediatricians have become more familiar with the symptoms of autism.

What is Autism?

Autism is a mental disorder that begins in childhood that is characterized by persistent impairments in being to engage in social communication and interaction with others. A person with autism often has restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities. The symptoms are present since childhood, and impact a person’s everyday living.

Autism exists on a spectrum. People with severe forms of autism may have a difficult time with everyday activities that significantly limit the kinds of things they do as an adult. People with less severe forms of autism may appear to be perfectly normal, except in certain social situations where the impairment becomes more apparent. Autism may exist with or without accompanying intellectual and language impairments.

An estimated 3.4 out of every 1,000 children ages 3-10 suffers from autism, a disorder that causes disruption in families and unfulfilled lives for many children. Research from 2009 suggests autism now affects every 1 in 110 children.

In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism into the English language. At the same time a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a milder form of the disorder that became known as Asperger’s syndrome.

Thus these two disorders were described and are today listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as neurodevelopmental disorders, more often referred to today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All these disorders are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Asperger’s syndrome is now known as simply another form of an autism spectrum disorder.

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Autism spectrum disorders can often be reliably detected by the age of 3 years, and in some cases as early as 18 months. Studies suggest that many children eventually may be accurately identified by the age of 1 year or even younger. The appearance of any of the warning signs of ASD is reason to have a child evaluated by a professional specializing in these disorders.

Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors in their child. In some cases, the baby seemed “different” from birth, unresponsive to people or focusing intently on one item for long periods of time. The first signs of an ASD can also appear in children who seem to have been developing normally. When an engaging, babbling toddler suddenly becomes silent, withdrawn, self-abusive, or indifferent to social overtures, something is wrong. Research has shown that parents are usually correct about noticing developmental problems, although they may not realize the specific nature or degree of the problem.

The pervasive developmental disorders, or autism spectrum disorders, range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, to a milder form, Asperger syndrome. If a child has symptoms of either of these disorders, but does not meet the specific criteria for either, the diagnosis is called pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Other rare, very severe disorders that are included in the autism spectrum disorders are Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. This brochure will focus on classic autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger syndrome, with brief descriptions of Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder below.

Prevalence of Autism

In 2007 — the most recent government survey on the rate of autism — the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the rate is higher than the rates found from studies conducted in the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s (survey based on data from 2000 and 2002). The CDC survey assigned a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder based on health and school records of 8 year olds in 14 communities throughout the U.S. Debate continues about whether this represents a true increase in the prevalence of autism. Changes in the criteria used to diagnose autism, along with increased recognition of the disorder by professionals and the public may all be contributing factors. Nonetheless, the CDC report confirms other recent epidemiologic studies documenting that more children are being diagnosed with an ASD than ever before.

Data from an earlier report of the CDC’s Atlanta-based program found the rate of autism spectrum disorder was 3.4 per 1,000 for children 3 to 10 years of age. Summarizing this and several other major studies on autism prevalence, CDC estimates that 2-6 per 1,000 (from 1 in 500 to 1 in 150) children have an ASD. The risk is 3-4 times higher in males than females. Compared to the prevalence of other childhood conditions, this rate is lower than the rate of mental retardation (9.7 per 1,000 children), but higher than the rates for cerebral palsy (2.8 per 1,000 children), hearing loss (1.1 per 1,000 children), and vision impairment (0.9 per 1,000 children).3 The CDC notes that these studies do not provide a national estimate.

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