Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is a life-long developmental disability that affects the individuals understanding of what he/she sees, hears and senses. This results in problems of social relationships, communication and behaviour. It is generally accepted that autism is an organic brain disorder.

What causes autism?
The cause or causes of autism are, as yet, unknown. No factors in the child’s psychological or family environment cause autism.

What are the characteristics of autism?
The degree of severity of characteristics differs from person to person, but usually include disturbances in the following:

  • delay or absence in language development
  • difficulties understanding speech
  • difficulties using language
  • difficulties understanding and using gesture
Social Interaction
Difficulties with the following:
  • understanding relationships
  • relating to others, may appear to "tune out"
  • maintaining eye contact
  • forming friendships
  • understanding other peoples' thoughts and feelings
  • co-operative play
Inconsistent Sensory Responses
  • may appear to be deaf
  • may appear to have selective hearing
  • may use peripheral vision
  • may show extreme fear reactions
  • apparent insensitivity to pain
  • may show lack of responsiveness to cold or heat
  • may overreact to any of these
Intellectual Functioning
  • uneven pattern of skills
  • some things may be done quite well in relation to overall functioning eg memorising dates, numbers, advertising jingles
  • the majority of people with autism have varying degrees of intellectual disability
Activities and Interests
Restricted range of activities and interests:
  • unusual repetitive body movements eg hand flicking, spinning or rocking. walking on tip-toe
  • rigidity in routines
  • obsessive and ritualistic behaviour eg peeling paint/wallpaper, smelling food before eating
  • resistance to and difficulty adapting to change
  • lack of imaginative play eg make-believe games
  • play inappropriate to the function of the toy eg spinning wheels, lining up Textas
  • may have difficulty learning through imitations

What are the four main criteria used for diagnosis?

The four main criteria used in diagnosis are:
a) qualitative impairment in verbal and non verbal communication
b) qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction
c) markedly restricted number of activities and interests and impaired imaginative play
d) symptoms evident during first 30 months of life

Is autism hereditary?

Research indicates that genetic factors may play a part in causing autism in some individuals. Most researchers agree that autism probably results from many separate causes.

What is the prognosis?

Studies have indicated that many people with autism may require varying degrees of support throughout their lives. It appears that an individual's intellectual ability may be an important factor in the long term prognosis.

What is the incidence of autism?

The quotes incidence in research findings varies from 2 to 21 per 10,000 births

Who is affected with autism?

Autism is distributed throughout the world among all races, nationalities and social classes. There are 3 - 4 times as many boys affected with autism as girls.

Is it known why there are more autistic males than females?

The reason why there are more autistic males than females is not known. However, this high ratio of boys to girls is found in a number of allied disorders involving language and learning problems.

Does autism occur in conjunction with other disabilities?

Autism can occur by itself or in association with other disorders such as intellectual disability, learning disability, epilepsy, rubella, fragile-x syndrome etc. A significant number of individuals with autism will develop epilepsy prior to adulthood.

What is the difference between autism and intellectual disability?

Most people with an intellectual disability show relatively even skill development. Individuals with autism typically show uneven skill development. Regardless of the level of intellectual functioning, problems with social awareness and understanding persist in people with autism.

What are the major differences in language development between autistic and non-autistic intellectually disabled persons?

Intellectually disabled people tend to have delayed language whilst the language of people with autism tends to be both delayed and disordered. Many have immediate or delayed echolalia (repetition of words or phrases). There is confusion over the use of pronouns and a tendency to interpret language literally.

What kind of approach is the most appropriate for teaching language?

The most appropriate approach for teaching language is that which best suits the individual. This can include signing, symbols, printed word, photos, verbal communication, or any combination of these.

How can people with autism be helped?

Behavioural methods are helpful in enhancing development in social, language, self-help, co-operation and other basic skills. Special educational approaches with firmly controlled, consistent, predictable and organised routines can help most children make gains in learning.

Can medication be useful with autistic individuals?

Medication has no specific role in autism and cannot be used in a curative sense, although anticonvulsants are required if epilepsy develops. In some cases where aggressive behaviour or depression develops, medication may be prescribed by a suitably qualified medical practitioner.