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What is autism ?

Autism is a very confusing diagnostic label. The term is used both for a more specific syndrome of abnormal development and also for a much broader range of related disorders. As their causes are not yet known for sure, these disorders are defined in terms of sets of behavioural symptoms which are not the same in every affected person. If we were to enter a room full of persons who had been diagnosed with autism, we would be struck far more by the differences than by the similarities among them.

After a great deal of research interest during the 1990s, we can now understand several things about autism more clearly. There is general agreement that, in its full-blown form, autism involves a triad of impairments—in social interaction, in communication and the use of language, and in limited imagination as reflected in restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour and activities. Those who combine all three impairments to a marked degree have the classic form of autism, so named by Leo Kanner, a psychistrist at Johns Hopkins University, in 1943. But much larger numbers have some of the traits of autism.

The idea of a spectrum or continuum of autism disorders is helpful to include persons who have some if not all the symptoms of autism, sometimes in combination with other disabilities. Asperger’s Syndrome, defined in 1944 but a diagnostic label not widely used until the 1990s, may affect seven times as many people as classic autism.

We now know that autism consists of disorders of development of brain functions. It is not a mental illness. Nor is it psychogenic, caused by anything in a child’s psychological environment. Earlier notions, that autism was caused by emotional deprivation or emotional stress, have long been discredited. Autism affects families in all races, cultures and socioeconomic groups and is found everywhere in the world. More males than females are affected, the ratio being 4:1 with classic autism, 9:1 with Asperger’s Syndrome.

For a diagnosis of autism, the main symptoms must be clear before the age of 3 years. The disabilities are lifelong and there is no known cure, though careful training and sensitive support can bring improvements. The autistic impairments may be associated with cognitive disabilities. Two-thirds of those with classic autism (or Kanner syndrome) are severely to mildly handicapped in cognition and intellect. Most people with Asperger’s have average to higher IQ. Across the autistic spectrum, perhaps 10 per cent have distinctive abilities—in such fields as art, music, mathematics or memory—and are called autistic savants. (The proportion of people with such special abilities in the whole population is only one per cent).

Websites concerned with autism all present some information about the disorders, though some do not make clear the distinction between the more specific Autistic Disorder and the whole spectrum of autism disorders. The most coherent and comprehensive account, with great visual impact, is autism99 http://www.autism99.org (we advise you to restart your browser when exiting from this site).

Useful reviews of autism for professionals and parents include:


Other pages in this section: denotes current page

What is autism ?
  How many people have autism ?
  What causes autism ?
  How is autism diagnosed ?
  Types of autism.
  Autism in adulthood.

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