Autism is a developmental disability which is a brain-based (neurological) disorder first evident in the early childhood years, typically prior to 3 years of age. Autism is a sub-category of the umbrella term of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) which also include Asperger’s Disorder, PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Rett’s Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Pervasive developmental disorders are also commonly referred to as the autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder are characterized by impairment in 3 areas of development – communication, socialization and unusual interests/ behaviors. The characteristics of this disorder can range from mild to severe. Likewise, cognitive and adaptive functioning can range from gifted to severely impaired. The autism spectrum disorders do not describe a delay in development, but rather a difference or deviation in development in the above listed areas.
The causes for Autism are not yet known. Previous notions of the cause of autism have centered on the mother-child emotional relationship. This theory has been overwhelmingly proven to be incorrect, i.e., autism is not caused by poor parenting skills. Although we do not yet know what causes autism, research has supported that autism interferes with the functioning of the brain. Although it is likely that multiple causes for autism may be found, at present, researchers have not pinpointed one particular area as the root cause. In some cases, there may be a genetic cause.
Accurate incidence rates are difficult to determine, though it is clear that the numbers of individuals diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is on the rise. Researchers are looking at whether the higher rates are caused by better diagnosing and increased awareness, or whether more children are actually developing this disability. It is known that autism affects 4 –5 times as many boys as girls, occurs in all cultures, and are present among all socio-economic classes.
Although autism is considered a life-long disability, current trends based on increased knowledge of how to educate individuals with autism and the importance of early education emphasize building skills and abilities in order to prepare young adults with ASD to live in the community, and in some cases, to pursue higher education. Outcomes appears to depend on both degree of overall impairment and intensity of educational/treatment effort, though it is clear that prognosis is markedly better for individuals who develop verbal language before the age of 5 years.
Individuals with autism will most likely benefit from on-going support and services. It should be noted that each individual is unique with many gifts that need to be explored and developed throughout the lives, and strong family support and advocacy will be needed. Many individuals with this disorder are living at a level of independence that was not previously thought possible 20 years ago. More resources focusing on identification, education, parent advocacy, family support services, training, and research than ever before are being devoted to unlocking the mystery of autism. With all these resources, there is great hope for the future for all individuals with autism spectrum disorders.