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: behavior, language/communication, social skills, and sensory systems. The cause of autism remains a mystery. Current research suggests there may be different subsets of individuals on the spectrum, 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 accompanying mental retardation, 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-talking abilities.
The rate of autism is now 1 in every 100 births (Centers for Disease Control) 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. One in ever 58 boys will be diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and on a family level, 1 in every 68 families will be affected by autism.
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.
Great strides are being made in our understanding of autism and Asperger’s and how best to help these individuals. Children are now being diagnosed as early as 12-15 months old, and many who receive intensive early intervention are able to enter elementary school in class with their typical peers, needing minor supports and services. However, no matter the age of diagnosis, children and adults with ASD are constant learners and significant improvements in their functioning can be made at any age with the appropriate types and intensity of services.