What is Autism?
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that is marked by the presence of impaired social interaction and communication and a restricted repertoire of activities and interests. Usually noted within the first three years of life, it occurs in 1 of 150 births, exists in every ethnic group and every part of the world, and is much more common in boys than girls.
Before treatment, youngsters with Autism exhibit very uneven patterns of development. Often, speech is absent or very delayed and children do not relate to objects, events, or other people in expected ways, nor do they respond to touch, taste, sight, or sound in the same manner as their typical peers. Many children exhibit extremely dysfunctional responses, including stereotypic movements, tantrums, and self-injury.
Although the causes of Autism are not yet known, there is some evidence that there may be multiple causes, such as genetic factors; insults to brain development (e.g., maternal health problems during pregnancy or problems during delivery); or parents or children's exposure to toxic chemicals.
Because the etiology of autism is not clearly understood, prevention is not possible. But a significant body of evidence shows that applied behavior analysis technology can make a world of difference for people with autism, especially when treatment begins early.
Children with Autism show a great variance of developmental symptoms ranging from severe impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors that regulate social interaction to a failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to age. Their impairment in communication is also marked and sustained and can affect both verbal and nonverbal skills. Autistic children may have a delay in or a total lack of spoken language. In children who do speak, there may be a delay in the ability to sustain a conversation with others, or a stereotypic and repetitive use of language. Children with Autism may also show a lack of varied, spontaneous make believe play or social imitative play and often have restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of activity.
Children with Autism may have a range of behavioral symptoms including hyperactivity, short attention span, impulsivity, aggressiveness, self-injurious behavior and temper tantrums. They may show unusual responses to sensory stimuli as observed by a lack of response to pain or a hypersensitivity to particular sounds. In addition, children with Autism often have unusual eating and sleeping habits and are described as being either agitated and irritable or aloof and detached.
Because autism is a severe, chronic developmental disorder that results in significant lifelong disability, the goal of treatment is to promote the child's social and language development and minimize behaviors that interfere with the child's functioning and learning. Intensive, sustained special education programs and behavior therapy early in life can increase the ability of the child with autism to acquire language and ability to learn. Special education programs in highly structured environments appear to help the child acquire self-care, social, and job skills. Only in the past decade have studies shown positive outcomes for very young children with Autism. Given the severity of the impairment, high intensity of service needs, and costs (both human and financial), there has been an ongoing search for effective treatment.