Every year, April 2nd marks Autism Awareness Day, a worldwide day of education and recognition. Although most people have heard about autism, some of the statistical facts, causes, and treatments might be unfamiliar because autism is a spectrum disorder, often misunderstood. So, whether you’re a soon-to-be parent or already have little ones, it's always helpful to become better informed.
Four Types of Autism
In terms of gender, boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism. This translates to 1 in 37 boys compared to 1 in 151 girls diagnosed to be somewhere on the spectrum. In terms of types, there isn’t just one type of autism, but four . All four are now classified under the one name; autism spectrum disorder.
1.) General autism disorder: This is the standard autism that is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) as the following:
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a ‘developmental disorder’ because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.”
The old term used to be general autism disorder, which is further along on the spectrum and considered one of the more severe cases. The new term autism spectrum disorder encompasses all four types of autism.
Autism spectrum disorder symptoms include:
- Trouble communicating and interacting with others. Symptoms consist of a lack of being able to have a back and forth dialogue exchange with other people, as well as having difficulty understanding another person's perspective.
- Repetitive behavior and select interests in specific subjects. Talking incessantly about a particular subject, while being unable to take social cues.
- A person with general autism might experience difficulty functioning normally at school, work, and various areas of life.
- Listening problems as well as making minimal eye contact including being non-responsive to their name when called.
- Unusual facial expressions or behaviors that don’t align with what’s being communicated and speaking in a flat-robotic or sing-song tone.
2.) Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS): This form of autism was a category best suited for those whose autism is worse than Asperger’s, but less than general autism.
According to Autism Speaks, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) is defined as the following:
“In the past, psychologists and psychiatrists often used the term “pervasive developmental disorders” and “autism spectrum disorders” (ASD) interchangeably. As such, PDD-NOS became the diagnosis applied to children or adults who are on the autism spectrum but do not fully meet the criteria for another ASD such as autistic disorder (sometimes called “classic” autism) or Asperger syndrome.”
3.) Asperger’s syndrome: On the spectrum, Asperger’s tends to be the higher functioning of all three. Intellectually very smart, people with Asperger’s syndrome tend to be extremely focused on a particular topic or subject matter and can talk at length about it. Those with Asperger's can lead very normal lives but might struggle socially.
4.) Childhood disintegrative disorder (also known as “Heller’s syndrome”): CDD is a form of autism that is the rarest, first affecting children between the ages of 2 and 4. At first children with CDD develop normally and then begin to regress rapidly losing both mental, language, and social skills. Those diagnosed with CDD also tend to experience seizures.
According to Spectrum News, CDD is defined as the following:
“CDD is the strangest and most unsettling developmental condition you have probably never heard of. Also known as Heller’s syndrome, for the Austrian special educator who first described it in 1908, it is a late-blooming, viciously regressive form of autism.”
Seven Autism Myths
1.) Myth One: Children and adults with autism are not able to express emotion or understand other people's feelings.
Reality: Individuals with autism perceive, as well as reveal how they feel but in unique ways, compared to those not on the spectrum. Likewise, they comprehend other people’s emotions but are better at interpreting directness versus unspoken body language or understanding sarcasm.
2.) Myth Two: Children and adults with autism are intellectually impaired.
Reality: Mental processes range because autism is a spectrum disorder. Unlike Down Syndrome, where it is defined as a mental and intellectual disability with markedly lower IQs, many with autism have normal to high IQs even excelling in the arts, math, and other areas of interest.
3.) Myth Three: Children are affected by autism and not adults.
Reality: While autism is first diagnosed in children, the diagnosis remains throughout the rest of their lives and into adulthood. Autism is not something one grows out of and can sometimes be diagnosed in adults that were either misdiagnosed or symptoms were mild, and so there wasn’t a formal diagnosis as a child.
4.) Myth Four: Autism is strictly a brain disorder.
Reality: On the contrary, autism co-exists with other symptoms such as food and various types of allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, and epilepsy.
5.) Myth Five: Autism is nothing more than weird behaviors that will go away or the condition is a result of bad parenting.
Reality: This has been a myth that began in the 1950s. Parenting style has nothing to do with autism, and symptomatic behaviors associated with the diagnosis is not something a child will simply “grow out of” because autism is a biological condition. This means that it affects brain development and tends to be a lifelong condition.
6.) Myth Six: Children and Adults with autism aren’t able to make friends, nor do they want friends.
Reality: While it's true those on the spectrum might struggle socially, including difficulty making eye contact, and communicating effectively. This might make it appear as if they don't want friends or they're unfriendly, but it has more to do with the inability to communicate the way those not on the spectrum do. Many who are on the spectrum can and do make friends. Though they do so at their pace, it also has a lot to do with common interests and learning about healthy personal boundaries.
7.) Myth Seven: People with autism are math geniuses and numbers wizards like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
Reality: Some people with Aspergers tend to gravitate towards specific subjects and become super focused on them. Such subjects can be math, but can also include music, and a variety of other topics. Since autism is a spectrum disorder, each individual on the spectrum will have varying interests and limitations.
Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment
According to medical experts, there isn't one specific cause for autism. However, there does appear to be a genetic link, as autism seems to be prevalent in certain families. Though, there are environmental factors that contribute to autism such as a mother's immune system and complications during birth. Other environmental factors researched have included the use of antidepressants, lack of folic acid, maternal age, exposure to pollution plus endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and certain parental medical conditions.
A diagnosis is usually reached in childhood. In most cases, autism is diagnosed before a child reaches 24 months. Early symptoms can sometimes occur as soon as 12 to 18 months, though a diagnosis is more commonly concluded past 24 months. Treatment is often ongoing and sometimes include psychotropics such as antipsychotic medications plus cognitive and behavioral therapy.
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