Autism has been defined as a brain development disorder that restricts an individual's ability to interact and communicate with others in a normal manner. And while this definition helps to give us an idea of the problems and symptoms involved, it is an extraordinarily complex issue and cannot be readily understood with just a few simple words.
Another aspect of an autistic individual is behavior that could be described as a pattern of repetitive, stereotypic activities. Which is to say - motor behavior that is seemingly driven, non-functional and repetitive. It does not fit into normal activities and can at times cause self-injury.
In examining the subject of autism, it is important to understand that it is just one part of a spectrum of conditions that is represented by the term 'Pervasive Developmental Disorders' or PDD. Some of these disorders include: Asperger's Disorder, Retts' Disorder, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. These disorders may share certain clinical features but differ widely in their symptoms and behaviors. As well, amongst patients diagnosed with autism - there can be a range of different patterns.
However, the three general aspects of an impairment in the ability to interact and communicate with others, and the pattern of repetitive, stereotypic behavior are the major indicators of autism. Because these problems manifest themselves generally at a very young age - usually before the age of three - they interfere with the natural growth of basic skills. Thus they are termed "developmental disorders". To varying degrees each child will be faced with obstacles to overcome. It is accepted that this challenge will remain throughout their whole adult lives.
Other characteristics that can indicate an autistic condition but are not necessarily present in each case are: overly impulsive behavior, a short attention span, odd responses to sensory input, odd fears and anxieties, unexplained abnormalities in eating, drinking or sleeping, and unusual skill development or the presence of unusual abilities.
Though awareness of this disorder is growing rapidly, the exact cause and nature of it is still the subject of many ongoing studies and research. This awareness has also brought to light that while it was once thought to be a rarity, autism, and related, similar conditions are actually much more prevalent. In fact, some studies seem to indicate that the rate of occurrence is growing. However, this may in part be due to the fact that the medical community is better able to diagnose the disorder and that there is a greater spectrum of associated similar conditions. Estimates have been made that range between 1 person in every 500 to 1 in every 1,000. It is not partial to any particular ethnic, social or racial group but it is found to affect boys three to four times more often than girls.
The History and Causes
The medical community first became aware of autism in the 1940's. In those early years the medical profession unfortunately put much of the onus on parents of children with autism. It was thought that it may have been 'cold' behavior on their part that caused their children to withdraw. And it must have been devastating for those parents to have had to deal not only with the heartbreak of an ill child but with this other added guilt. Over time this attitude was done away with and research into other factors continued. However, it took until the 1990's before it became more defined. Even so, much about this complex disorder remains a mystery to scientists, researchers and doctors.
In part this is because autism is a complex disorder that touches upon a wide range of developmental disabilities. This makes it a little more difficult to pinpoint a specific cause or sequence of events that explains clearly why any one individual child becomes autistic. It is referred to as a developmental disorder because it usually arises before the age of three when children are learning so many of the basic skills. Autism delays the progress of these skills and hampers their development throughout the life of the individual.
However, as research continues there are different factors that are under analysis. In 1995 a group working for the National Institute of Health reached the conclusion that autism may result from a genetic susceptibility or vulnerability that involves several genes. And at present researchers feel that as many as ten different genes on different chromosomes may be implicated to varying degrees. One can begin to see the wide range of possibilities that could be connected to each individual case.
It has also been confirmed that autism can be a result if before birth a baby is exposed to thalidomide. As well, if an expectant mother is infected with the wild rubella virus during the early part of her pregnancy this can cause certain birth defects that they feel could also result in a child developing autism.
In more recent news there has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not there is a link between autism and vaccines given to children. Understandably there are strong emotions on both side of this issue. Research by both parties is ongoing and it is hoped that there will soon be a definitive answer on this subject. Concerned parents must weigh all available data before making the best informed decision that they possibly can with regard to their children.
While there are yet so many unanswered questions - more and more parents are having to face the challenge of raising a child with autism. Fortunately there are a great number of federal agencies, organizations, and support groups that are doing their utmost to gain a better understanding of this disorder and to help those with autism to achieve their best potential in living full and productive lives.
What Are The Signs
In discussing the possible signs of autism it is good to remember that, as it is with many medical conditions, it is necessary to try and get the whole picture before arriving at a conclusion. So often a single sign may simply be the result of a completely different issue altogether.
As mentioned previously, autism is a disorder that normally manifests itself when a child has extreme difficulty in interacting and communicating with others in a manner that we have come to consider as 'normal' behavior. This is usually accompanied by a pattern of repetitive stereotypic activities. This is motor behavior that seems driven and doesn't seem to serve any particular purpose. It may even be a cause for self-injury.
If a child is having difficulty in these areas a parent may wish to give attention to other aspects of their child's growth and development. Most certainly, anyone who is involved with children may spot some of these signs and be able to voice their concerns. An early diagnosis can be so important in helping a child with autism to learn to cope with their disorder and in finding the best possible route for them to achieve their potential in life.
Some of these conditions may seem to overlap but need to be assessed together. They include such things as language skills being slow to develop and there being an inability to express their needs or desires. In turn they may appear to not 'hear' you and may not even seem to respond to their own name. There is a lack of interest in what is happening around them as if they are absorbed in a completely different world of their own. They may prefer to walk on their toes or exhibit other odd awkward movements that are more than just an occasional occurrence.
Other vivid indicators seem to tend toward hyperactive, resistant and uncooperative behavior that is not easily controlled by a parent's interest and admonishment. Their inability to socially interact could include not making eye contact and preferably trying to keep by themselves. Not even being slightly interested in what other children may be doing near by. There may also seem to be the need for them to compulsively line or arrange things in a particular order.
On the other side of the developmental coin - many autistic children show skills that appear to be more advanced than other children of their age. In fact, some autistic children can shine at a skill few adults could master.
Keep in mind that every child, whether 'normal' or with challenges, is unique. They will develop at different rates and if some of these signs are evident it is not necessarily a diagnosis of autism. But all of these conditions warrant some concern and care. And because children vary it may be that a diagnosis of autism takes some time. It is good to know that the growing awareness of this disorder can speed things up however, and a parent or doctor that is interested and aware can pick up some indicators while the child is only a year old.
Coping as the Parent
Every day thousands of parents are presented with the challenge of coming to understand what a diagnosis of autism means for their child and how they can best work to help him or her overcome the challenges of this disorder and rise to their best potential as individuals.
There is no doubt about it - the greatest source of help for an autistic child will be their parents. Now on the front line in facing and understanding this disorder - they will be continually adding to their knowledge of the special world their child inhabits and how to help him interact and cope with the challenges in life. Being the closest to their child they will be more intimately aware of his strengths and weaknesses. They will, in most cases, be the buffer and interpreter of what is best. And they deserve our respect and compassion for whatever they may be going through in the way of stress.
Fortunately they are not alone in their efforts. The community as a whole is becoming more aware and understanding of the special challenges an autistic child is dealing with. There are more and more support groups where parents and other family members can express their concern with others who will be able to empathize and offer insightful suggestions. And although the modern medical profession cannot currently offer a cure for autism they have demonstrated in many cases how aspects of the disorder are very treatable. Parents can attend forums and work groups that give the latest in information and ideas for treatments that they can employ.
As with many medical conditions, it is good to keep in mind, that there are no hard and fast rules that must apply in every case. Each child is unique. Though the overall symptoms presented may have similarities with other children it does not mean that they will react to treatments in the exact same way. And this aspect should give a grounding of hope that anything is possible.
Autistic children require intensive interventions. The kind of help that is individualized according to their specific capabilities and needs. It is specialized, focused help. And because parents are always the closest, they know better than anyone else the behavioral patterns of their child. What things may cause them the biggest challenges and what may be their best abilities. Coordinating with their personal health care professionals they may be able to work with schools and programs designed to treat autistic children. If a parent is willing to involve other professionals it may be a source of strength and provide some relief.
It is easier said than done sometimes, but a positive outlook and approach is a vitally important aspect in transmitting this to any child that they are loved unconditionally. Parents of autistic children will have many challenges but they will experience a special joy in helping these precious ones to grow into their full potential enjoying productive lives. Many have expressed the sentiment that it has turned out to be blessing for their family in many ways.
The term 'autism' can cover a wide spectrum of conditions that are related in that it refers to a neurological condition that affects developmental abilities. People with a disorder that falls into that spectrum exhibit difficulty in communicating and interacting with others as well as displaying odd patterns of behaviors, interests or activities.
These characteristics can vary quite a lot from individual to individual. Most severely, an autistic person may appear to be locked in their own world and they may even act aggressively. Whereas others, who may still fall into the category as autistic can adapt and function quite well in their social environment.
Treatment for autistic individuals has the best results if it is started early on. This means getting a diagnosis as soon as a child may show unusual patterns or delays in growth development for his age - such as perhaps an inability to connect with others yet an advanced ability for something like math.
Certain types of treatments can involve aspects of diet, physiotherapy, counseling, working with language skills and some medication. Possibly due to the fact that each individual patient is unique, the results vary and so there is some debate over what kind of treatment offers the best results. As examples - there is Applied Behavioral Analysis that involves employing someone to work one on one with the individual up to 40 hours a week and can be costly, and there is Intensive Behavioral Intervention that can work one on one or in small groups. Before pursuing any particular method it is recommended that parents or caregivers research thoroughly the credited results of several options. The Autism Society of America encourages parents to trust their instincts and proceed thoughtfully. Especially in the most severe cases of autism - the choices they make and the dramatic changes it may entail in the life of the child is not something to be done too quickly or lightly.
In the search for a treatment that will help someone with autism it is important to remember that no one idea will cover all the bases. A parent or primary caregiver will come to know through observation, what are a child's strengths and weaknesses. It may be that they will adapt a variety of ideas and create a program that is uniquely their own. Whatever choice is made it will require a determination to stay focused, persistent and consistent. This will also mean cultivating patience as results may come slowly at first.
In addition to any educational and behavioral programs there is also the option of some medicines that while not a direct treatment for autism can help to alleviate certain connected problems. As well, some families have had good results in adjusting their diets and adding certain vitamins and minerals.
Since it is accepted that there currently is no known cure for autism it means that there is an ongoing search that leaves open to each family the responsibility to pursue any reasonable option that is medically sound. In turn, whatever success they may achieve is something that they can share with others.
Autistic children can make a great deal of progress if they receive focused individualized attention done in an appropriate manner.
Can Diet and Vitamins Treat Autism?
In the treatment of autism or any of the conditions that is encompassed under Autism Spectrum Disorders, some families have reported improved conditions through some changes in their diet. It is in keeping with a holistic approach that all areas of an individual's life be examined for opportunities to eliminate problem areas.
In line with this, one of the similarities exhibited by individuals with ASD is an apparent low tolerance or even allergy to certain chemicals or foods. Since this type of intolerance can add to behavioral problems some have found an improvement in their situation by eliminating certain foods from the diet of their child.
It is thought that certain proteins such as gluten pose a problem in that research has uncovered that children with autistic disorders have elevated levels of certain peptides in their urine. This indicates that their bodies are not processing these peptides properly. These are peptides that come from foods that contain casein and gluten. Casein is a protein that is derived from dairy products and gluten comes from plant sources such as wheat, rye or oats.
While it is not yet understood why there is difficulty in breaking these peptides down properly - it is thought that this brings about a disruption in the biochemical and neurological processes of the brain. Thus affecting an individual's behavioral patterns. At present this means that the only way to deal with the situation is to eliminate these proteins from the diet. It is recommended however, that this be done in a gradual manner because this encompasses so many of the foods that are common to our diet and could cause some aggravating withdrawal symptoms. And as always, it is important to research any verifiable data that will help you establish a proper diet to replace and balance out the foods that are taken out.
In addition, it is felt that many children with autistic disorders suffer from too much yeast in their intestinal tract and that this would be a source of certain behavioral issues in that it can result in hyperactivity and confusion amongst other things. If this is the case and a parent decides to treat this issue it is wise to consult a qualified nutritionist who can not only suggest the right course of action but, as well, work at keeping a proper balance of good bacteria in the body.
Finally, one of the most highly regarded vitamins used to help improve symptoms of autism is that of Vitamin B. In research studies that included the use of vitamin B and other vitamins and minerals needed to add to its effectiveness there appears to marked improvements in eye contact, attention span, learning and behavioral problems. Before embarking on this route however, it is strongly advised that parents or caregivers consult a professional nutritionist who can first determine through a blood test what exactly may be lacking in the child's system in the way of minerals or vitamins. This can be prove to be the safest and most effective path for getting results.
Dealing with Autism
The subject of autism is a complex one in that a number of behavioral disorders can be labeled 'autistic'. In turn these 'behavioral disorders' can vary in degrees of disability. Some people with autism appear to be completely shut off in their own world and may even exhibit very angry and aggressive tendencies. Others who may have suffered from developmental issues earlier on, but who have had help and training, have learned to cope beautifully and can function well in their work and social environments.
It can be said however, that all these disorders center around that basic issue of interacting and communicating with others. All are treatable to some degree but it is understood that it is never really cured and that a person faced with this challenge may make a great deal of progress in coping with it but will nonetheless face it their entire life.
Some descriptive terms that relate to, and try to differentiate the varying degrees of autistic behavior are: high or low functioning, autistic like, or having autistic tendencies. These help to illustrate that even though two children may receive the diagnosis of autism their functioning abilities may vary widely. But while their characteristics may vary it is generally understood that most autistic individuals have to cope with a higher sensitivity to the sights, smells and sounds that surround them. Most of us may take for granted the noises of our daily routines, the aromas of foods or the touch and feel of certain objects. Yet for people with autism some of these things can be painful to their senses. This is a result of the brain's inability to coordinate and integrate their senses input correctly. By carefully observing over time their sensitivities it can help us to better understand their negative reactions and find ways of mitigating the situation.
Another aspect of living with autism is the need for a regular, consistent and safe routine. For those that are caring for autistic individuals it is important to plan ahead as much as possible for any variance in their routine. Since there can be some resistance it will be necessary to slowly prepare them for the change coming up with repeated warm assurances. They often respond very well to a physical representation of what may be ahead so if it is possible to show a picture of what is planned or involved, it can help. Some have also found that having a calendar with a marked date and involving them in marking the days off can help build an acceptance for and perhaps even an anticipation for the event.
Though many have difficulty in starting or maintaining conversations with others - at times they may seem to talk at people rather that to them and will be unresponsive to the input of others - they will need to be helped to grow in this area to keep them connected to their loved ones and their environment. This may require a great deal of patience and understanding. But ultimately, the biggest gift that parents can give is their unconditional love. Though children or adults with autism may not always respond on our terms or perhaps appear to be unmoved by the emotions of others they are no different from anyone else who needs to be able to feel they are loved and be able to love in return.
Parents who have a child that has been diagnosed as having autism or having disorders that are within the spectrum of autism will be heartened to know that there are more and more support groups in their communities that are focused on being a support to them and their children. Some examples follow.
One organization taking the lead in this is the Autism Society of America. Their goal is to help improve the lives of those affected by autism and those that are their caregivers. What does this include? It means having a network of people that may begin with large national partners but reaches down into smaller groups within the community that are working to make the public more aware of the needs of autistic individuals.
These workers are there as advocates for the wide range of services that may be needed to help them find their full potential in functioning well within their social environment. They form work groups that assist in training children with autism to improve their language and behavior skills. They can help find employment for people with autistic disabilities. They keep families up to date with the latest in medical research and advancement in treatments. And they are there to listen and give support through the tough times. By visiting their site on line families are able to get more information and find chapters that are close to their community. (www.autism-society.org)
The POAC or Parents of Autistic Children (www.poac.net) was formed in 1999 and focuses on the here and now of helping parents to keep up to date with the latest in teaching methods for their children. Their goal is to help as well the community at large to understand this disorder and how they can support these individuals. They hope to increase the number of qualified personnel who can specialize in this field. And they work along with health care providers and local school officials to implement workshop groups to help train and teach those afflicted with autism and those caring for them.
In addition to groups that are focused on helping families with younger autistic children to get the training they need to overcome challenges of autism - there are a growing number of colleges that are showing their awareness of the large section of people that are afflicted with varying degrees of this disorder. Some are now offering alternative services to help these young people reach their full potential and further their education.
If there does not appear to be a specific organization dealing with autism in your immediate community the National Institute for Health does suggest that local doctors, health maintenance organizations, mental health agencies and medical universities are a few of the avenues open to seek guidance on available treatments and/or groups that can lend support. Added to that is the wealth of information available on line. Of course the key in approaching any problem is to begin by getting as much soundly based knowledge as possible. But an added bonus is the opportunity to communicate with individuals the world over who can offer insight, sound advice and empathy because they will know what you are going through first hand.
Getting Ready for School
For parents with an autistic child one of the greatest challenges is to see that they are provided with a proper education. Some children may have milder aspects of autism and may be able to attend regular school and exhibit only a little discomfort in doing so. Others may be faced with greater obstacles. In either case it is good to be conscious of the fact that a child with autism is not comfortable with change. It is often a source of great anxiety. Parents will benefit from searching out ways to reassure and comfort their child through this transition.
So to help their child deal with this change in their routine, parents will need to prepare well in advance. It has been suggested that visual aids help the child to become acquainted with the school, his classroom and his teacher. Some have used videos to show the route, the school and various classrooms. Others have included a brief interview with their teacher. It can be profitable to walk through the process - going to the school and classrooms well before that 'first' day arrives. And other members of the family can discuss their own experience with a positive approach. Still others have suggested using a large calendar with the special day marked in and have the young one mark off the days leading up to the event as this may help to build an anticipation or at least an acceptance.
Acquainting the teachers involved with the strengths and vulnerabilities of your child can also help to mitigate any potential awkwardness or problems. What will help the teacher is finding out what you have observed about 'how' your child learns best. What kind of talents or hobbies interest them? What might be things that easily scare or upset them? And is there a subject that they may be curious to learn? Can you provide some examples of their efforts in drawing and writing? All of this provides a groundwork on which to build. In dealing with a child with autism it has been said that working from their strengths is far better and successful in the long run than trying to push them to conform to some other regimen.
And once school has begun it is important to bear in mind that a regular, dependable routine is comforting for children in general but even more so for children with autism. So both teachers and parents need to plan ahead for any upcoming changes and to go over this with the children well in advance.
As an alternative some parents may choose instead to home school their child. They may have done this even if their child wasn't autistic. Others may feel that their child will be more comfortable in the home environment and that doing so assists with any special dietary efforts they are implementing.. This will require a certain measure of discipline in having a set curriculum. There are, as well, some on line resources that constitute a 'virtual school' and provide a certain valuable structure. And the Charlotte Mason method of instruction is a popular program used for children with special needs that uses a literature based method of teaching. Of course it is important to check with your state or province's guidelines concerning homeschooling before opting for this choice.
Successful Life Stories
Autism is a brain development disorder that usually manifests itself at a young age and has as its characteristics a difficulty in interacting and communicating normally with others. There are varying degrees of autism and much milder forms of it - such as Asperger's Syndrome that are included under the term - Autism Spectrum Disorders.
There is no known cure for autism but many believe that if children are diagnosed at an early enough age that this can help them to receive appropriate treatment to successfully overcome their challenges and to find their full potential in life. Every case is a unique one and so the degrees of success may vary but the positive aspect is that treatment works and progress is possible.
In line with that, many who suffer from some form of autism have written about their experiences. Their insights are invaluable in helping others to have a practical and positive approach to their own situation. The National Autistic Society (www.nas.org.uk) is one place to search out for this. These articles help to point out that many of the issues that they are dealing with are no different than some of the pressures most of us feel in social situations. They have however, a much higher degree of sensitivity and there are some natural social cues that they are not able to perceive. Understanding a little of their point of view can help us to react with compassion and patience. These are individuals who must continually work at the art of interacting with others, which we can take for granted at times. This makes their successful progress something to be respected and admired.
One of the more high profile individuals that has gone on to triumph despite having autism is author Temple Grandin. She was able to earn a PhD and wrote a book entitled "Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism". Though her struggle is ongoing she has been able to find success in life and is representative of many others that have achieved great careers.
Some other famous people who are thought to have had the milder form of autism - called Asperger's Syndrome - are Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart and Pablo Picasso. This certainly highlights how important it is to not limit the possibilities or potential of anyone.
Finally, let it said that successful living can be measured many ways. The very fact that these individuals are meeting a difficult challenge every day and moving forward is its own victory. Hopefully everyone's understanding and awareness will continue to demonstrate that they are mindful of that.
For more information, obtain a copy of The Parenting Autism Resource Guide