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Autism Coach

What is Autism?


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The following is information is derived from the Autism Society of America's introductory information about autism.  We have added additional information and/or commentary in italics. 

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.  (Autism Coach - Children with severe symptoms may not be able to speak or have a limited range of speech.  They may also have difficulty understanding others through spoken and/or written communication.  Children and adults with milder symptoms can speak but often have difficulty understanding the give and take of social interactions, reading other people's emotions and motivations accurately, and have difficulty carrying out day to day activities independently and in a timely fashion.  Even an adult diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome or High Functioning Autism and an IQ of over 130 may not be able to live independently unless he or she is able to get along with co-workers, cope with sensory distractions in the workplace, appropriately allocate money to pay for food, rent, health care and other essentials, and meet other challenges that may arise.)

Autism is one of five disorders coming under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by "severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development," including social interaction and communications skills (DSM-IV-TR). The five disorders under PDD are Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder, and PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Each of these disorders has specific diagnostic criteria as outlined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in its Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR).

(Autism Coach - Labels given to individuals with milder symptoms of autism include High Functioning Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD NOS).  Sometimes an individual may have have additional issues and may also be labeled with Hyperlexia,  ADD, or ADHD, Tourette's Syndrome or Learning Disabled (LD) although children with these labels are frequently not within the autism spectrumFrequently, high-functioning children are unlabeled or mislabeled for many years until someone knowledgeable about high functioning autism comes into contact with them.)

Prevalence of Autism

Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, affecting an estimated 2 to 6 per 1,000 individuals in 2001.  (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001). At that time, as many as 1.5 million Americans today were believed to have some form of autism. 

And that number has skyrocketed since then. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year. At these rates, it is estimated that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report that the incidence of autism in children born in the U.S. within the last five years was estimated to be as high as 1 in 68 children and with the incidence approximately four times higher in boys than girls, this would be closer to 1 in 20 boys.

In 2014, in a political maneuver to artificially lower the reported cases of autism, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnositic and Statistical health manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) that is used by medical community and insurance companies to diagnose and authorize payment for medical treatment was revised to make it more difficult for individuals to receive an autism diagnosis.  It is estimated that these revisions will reduce the number of people who receive the diagnosis and are eligible for insurance coverage by a third.  They also eliminated Asperger's Syndrome and PDD-NOS, two additional autism spectrum diagnoses, from the DSM-5.

Autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries, and family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence. (Autism Coach - Clusters of higher incidence of autism have been found in certain areas of the U.S. - Brick County, New Jersey is one such example.  Also, according to an article in Wired Magazine, there appears to be a higher incidence of autism amongst the children of scientists, musicians, programmers, and engineers - with a cluster of autism occurring in Silicon Valley, California.)

Common Characteristics of Autism

While understanding of autism has grown tremendously since it was first described by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, most of the public, including many professionals in the medical, educational, and vocational fields, are still unaware of how autism affects people and how they can effectively work with individuals with autism. Contrary to popular understanding, many children and adults with autism may make eye contact, show affection, smile and laugh, and demonstrate a variety of other emotions, although in varying degrees.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills.  All children with autism can learn, function productively and improve with appropriate education and treatment.  (Autism Coach - substantial, and not infrequently, huge improvements are being made by children within the autism spectrum when the children are under the age of five and the behavioral and bio-medical issues are addressed through a comprehensive intervention program.)

Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions.  The person may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Communication is often described as talking at others (for example, monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments).  

People with autism process and respond to information in ways that differ from neurotypical (non-autistic) people.  (Autism Coach - how individuals within the autism spectrum perceive incoming information through sight, hearing, touch, taste and balance, store and organize this information and retrieve information from memory may be the underlying issues contributing to autistic behavior, according to recent research).

 Persons with autism an autism spectrum may also exhibit some of the following traits:

  • Little or no direct eye contact; gaze tends to be flat or low instead of looking up
  • Delay in speech or lack of speech
  • Difficulty in expressing needs and initiating conversation
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Insistence on sameness; resistance or anxiety with change in routine
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Laughing, crying, showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Prefers to be alone
  • Gastrointestinal issues - may be constipated or have diarrhea
  • Extremely limited variety of foods they will eat, addicted to certain foods
  • Difficulty going to sleep or sleeping through the night
  • May not want to cuddle or be cuddled
  • More attached to inanimate objects than people
  • Difficulty in socializing with others
  • Sustained odd play
  • Lines up objects
  • Spins objects
  • Obsessive interest in a specific area of interest or toy (such as trains or tractors)
  • Inappropriate attachments to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • Senory issues - over or under-sensitive to touch, texture of foods, noises
  • No fear of danger 
  • Tendency to climb extremely high when young, such as up bookcases and closets
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven or poor gross/fine motor skills
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range.
  • Tantrums and meltdowns
  • Aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods

For most of us, the integration of our senses helps us to understand what we are experiencing. For example, our senses of touch, smell and taste work together in the experience of eating a ripe peach: the feel of the peach fuzz as we pick it up, its sweet smell as we bring it to our mouth, and the juices running down our face as we take a bite. For children with autism, sensory integration problems are common. Their senses may be over-or under-active. The fuzz on the peach may actually be experienced as painful; the smell may make the child gag. Some children with autism are particularly sensitive to sound, finding even the most ordinary daily noises painful. Many professionals feel that some of the typical autism behaviors are actually a result of sensory integration difficulties.  (Autism Coach - some children who appear to be undersensitive to sensory input, such as hearing, may actually be overly sensitive and have tuned out sound completely because it is so unpleasant for them.)

There are many myths and misconceptions about autism. Contrary to popular belief, many autistic children do make eye contact; it just may be less or different from a non-autistic child. Many children with autism can develop good functional language and others can develop some type of communication skills, such as sign language or use of pictures.  (Autism Coach - According to some autistic children who are able to communicate through speech, typing or letter boards, they only process one form of sensory input at a time.  If they are looking, they can't hear - so frequently they look away from someone who is talking to them so they can concentrate on understanding what the speaker is saying.)