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What Is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects information processing in multiple ways. People with autism have difficulties with social and communication skills. They have restricted interests and engage in repetitive behaviors. They also tend to experience sensitivity or discomfort from sensory stimulation such as certain sights or sounds.

Because autism's symptoms vary greatly, the condition is said to exist on a spectrum, referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asperger's syndrome refers to "high functioning" autism, but is no longer a formal diagnostic term.

Autism usually manifests by age two. The condition is diagnosed four times more frequently in males than in females, according to the CDC, although women are often overlooked and misdiagnosed. The frequency of diagnosis has surged over the past 20 years; it is not clear whether the incidence is truly increasing, whether experts are more alert to it, or whether the diagnosis has shifted to include lesser degrees of impairment.

There is no cure for autism, nor is one universally sought: Many people argue that autism should not be framed as a medical condition in need of amelioration. For those on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum, targeted practices and therapies can help alleviate symptoms. Symptoms may also ease over the years.

For more information on symptoms, causes, and treatments, see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

What Are the Characteristics of Autism?

The condition manifests before age three and can be particularly confusing because some affected children appear to develop normally until the onset of the disorder. While the severity of symptoms varies greatly, there are invariably impairments to social and communication skills. (Some children with autism do not talk at all and remain mute throughout life), Children with autism also show restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.

Parents may notice that their infant avoids eye contact or doesn't respond, and it may be difficult for them to form emotional bonds and parental attachment. Children with autism have unusual responses to sensory experiences and may be highly sensitive to certain sounds, textures, tastes, or smells. They may have deficits in motor coordination and poor muscle tone.

Autistic children exhibit many kinds of repetitive behaviors early in life, such as hand flapping, body rocking, and making sounds. They may arrange or stack objects over and over again. Some children inflict injury to themselves by repeated actions such as hand biting and head banging. They show an early preference for unvarying routines of everyday life.

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What Causes Autism?

No one fully understands what causes autism. The number of children diagnosed with the disorder has increased significantly since the turn of the millennium, but experts are not sure whether that reflects an improvement in diagnostic awareness or a true increase in prevalence.

Research shows that genetics is a factor, because people who have a sibling with autism are more likely to have autism themselves. Autism is also more likely in individuals who have an older parent. Very low birth weight is also a risk factor, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and ASD occurs more frequently in people with some genetic conditions, such as Fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis.

How Is Autism Treated?

There are many approaches to managing or treating autism that have demonstrable results. Early intervention with highly structured behavioral, cognitive, and communication therapies can sometimes dramatically help children with autism learn skills, but some children with autism are unable to live independently as adults. School-based educational programs designed for children with autism can be effective in improving intellectual functioning.

Programs that make use of applied behavior analysis (ABA) have become widely accepted as the standard of treatment. In most effective programs, parents are encouraged to be highly involved in their children's care.

While no medication can correct the impairments common to autism, psychoactive drugs including antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants are often prescribed to help control specific symptoms. Anticonvulsant medication may reduce the number of seizures but not eliminate them entirely.

There are also many alternative treatments promoted to parents of children with autism, such as facilitated communication and auditory integration training, to name a few; many have been shown to be ineffective. It is important for parents of children with autism to look into prospective treatments as thoroughly as possible.

Autism and the Male Brain

Taking into account the biological and neurological differences between male and female brains and minds, British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen proposed the theory that autism represents an extreme version of a typically “male” brain. Men are overall more efficient at systemizing while women are more capable of empathizing.

Although there are exceptions, both men and women on the autism spectrum display a strong inclination towards systemizing. They are excellent at visual-spatial manipulation and rule-bound thinking but not as capable of empathy and mind reading. For this reason, Baron-Cohen has labeled autism "mind-blindness."

Baron-Cohen's work may help explain why approximately four times as many males as females are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Those statistics may not be reliable, however, as females with autism are often misdiagnosed as having other conditions.

Neurodiversity and the Autism Community

The concept of neurodiversity embraces, celebrates, and respects differences between and among people with autism and other functional but atypical variations in thinking and behavior. Those who support the neurodiversity movement assert there is no one “normal” brain against which all other brains can be measured. Therefore, autism should be broadly accepted and recognized as a natural variation on the human neurological condition.

Advocates point out the valuable skills and contributions of different types of minds, just as they highlight the value of other types of diversity. At the same time, some researchers and medical experts believe the concept of neurodiversity can be reasonably applied only to those with high-functioning autism.

Many people with autism try to improve their social skills and alter their behavior in order to cope more effectively with the neurally typical majority of the population. Others, especially those who exhibit fewer symptoms and need less support, find a strong identity and value in their unusual way of viewing the world and have less desire to conform.

In spite of organizational and communication challenges common to those on the autism spectrum, many are highly intelligent and capable of developing new skills and engaging in abstract thinking. For them, neurodiversity supports the promotion of “neuroequality” in education and employment.

What Are the Three Levels of Autism?

Everyone on the autism spectrum has a unique experience, but clinicians generally categorize people with autism into three levels depending on the severity of their social deficits and restrictive behaviors. Individuals on the mild end of the spectrum have slight difficulties navigating social interactions and completing certain tasks, while those in the middle of the spectrum have substantial interpersonal challenges and struggle deeply with change.

People with a more severe form of autism may have intellectual disability, be unable to speak, or experience extreme discomfort from certain lights, sounds, smells, and textures. They are also at risk of wandering away from their caregivers. Severe autism can lead to aggressive or violent repetitive behaviors such as banging one’s head against a wall or striking others. An especially dangerous situation may result in hospitalization; research shows that 11 percent of children with autism have been hospitalized before adulthood. A variety of medical conditions often co-occur with autism, such as epilepsy, anxiety, gastrointestinal issues, or difficulty sleeping.

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