Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. People with ASD have problems with social and communication skills. Many people with ASD also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to sensations. It is part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). In most cases its causes are unknown. Today, 1 in 160 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than paediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviours, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. At one time people subscribed to the myth that all children with ASD were unresponsive and aloof and never showed affection. We now know ASDs are much more complex with a variety of symptoms and characteristics that can occur in different combinations and varying degrees of severity.
What distinguishes a child with an ASD from a typical peer is what you can't see: the brain. This is why ASDs are known as invisible disabilities.
Autism was first identified in 1943 by Dr. Leo Kanner of Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the same time, a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a milder form of the disorder that is now known as Asperger's Syndrome. These two disorders are listed in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as two of the five developmental disorders that fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorders. The others are Retts Syndrome, PDD NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. All of these disorders are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, and also by repetitive behaviours.
Autism Spectrum Disorders can usually be reliably diagnosed by age three. Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviours in their child or their child's failure to reach appropriate developmental milestones. Some parents describe a child that seemed different from birth, while others describe a child who was developing normally and then lost skills. Paediatricians may initially dismiss signs of autism, thinking a child will "catch up," and may advise parents to "wait and see." Research shows that when parents suspect something is wrong with their child, they are usually correct.
If your child is diagnosed with autism, early intervention is critical in order to gain maximum benefit from the existing therapies. Although parents may have concerns about labelling a toddler as "autistic," the earlier the diagnosis is made, the earlier intervention can begin. As soon as autism is diagnosed, intervention instruction should begin. Effective programs focus on developing communication, social, and cognitive skills.
"Often people think that children with autism can't learn because they have autism. We believe that all children can and will learn through scientific, data-driven educational methods."
Dr. Ethan Long, The Bay School.