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Autism 101

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Autism is a developmental disorder, typically diagnosed during the first three years of life. It is neurological in nature, affecting the brain in four major areas of functioning: language/communication, social skills, sensory systems and behavior. The cause of autism remains a mystery. Current research suggests there may be different subsets arising from genetics, environmental insults, or a combination of both.

Every person with autism is unique, with a different profile of strengths and challenges. No two individuals manifest the same characteristics in the same degree of severity. It is a “spectrum” disorder, and the various individual diagnoses are collectively referred to as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Individuals on the spectrum range from those who are nonverbal with severe challenges that can include self-injurious behaviors and intellectual disabilities, to individuals on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum (known as Asperger’s Syndrome) who are extremely intelligent, with good expressive verbal language, yet markedly impaired social skills and weak perspective-taking abilities.

Autism affects 1 in every 110 children (Centers for Disease Control 2010)* and continues to escalate at alarming rates. Every 21 minutes a child is diagnosed on the spectrum. It is four times more common in boys than girls, and is consistently prevalent around the globe, and within different racial, social, and ethnic communities.

Autism is a different way of thinking and learning. People with autism are people first; autism is only one part of who they are. ASD is no longer viewed as strictly a behavioral disorder, but one that affects the whole person on various fronts: biomedical, cognitive, social, and sensory. With individualized and appropriate intervention, children with ASD can become more functional and learn to adapt to the world around them.

Early Warning Signs of Autism
The following list of symptoms represents the broad range of the disorder and is not meant to be a checklist to determine whether or not a child has ASD. Some children love hugs and are very affectionate; others are extremely touch sensitive to the point of it being painful. Some kids hit their developmental milestones, but they still seem to be “missing” something in the way they interact with others. Trust your gut instincts. If your child manifests several of these symptoms and your intuition suggests “something is just not right”, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician and ask for an evaluation. Get a second opinion if warranted. The earlier services are started with a child, the better is the opportunity for optimal positive learning and change to occur. Be proactive.

At 6 months
• Not making eye contact with parents during interaction.
• Not cooing or babbling.
• Not smiling when parents smile.
• Not participating in vocal turn-taking (baby makes a sound, adult makes a sound, and so forth).
• Not responding to peek-a-boo game.

At 12 months
• No attempts to speak.
• Not pointing, waving or grasping.
• No response when name is called.
• Indifferent to others.
• Repetitive body motions such as rocking or hand flapping.
• Fixation on a single object.
• Oversensitivity to textures, smells, sounds.
• Strong resistance to change in routine.
• Any loss of language.

At 24 months
• Does not initiate two-word phrases (that is, doesn’t just echo words).
• Any loss of words or developmental skill.

Source for Early Warning Signs: Dr. Rebecca Landa, Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore.

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