Autism Awareness Guide

Written by Michele Wheat

Autism is a developmental disability that belongs to the group of disorders called the autism spectrum disorders. The brain in a person with autism processes information differently, which often leads to unusual or abnormal speech and behavior. A person with autism usually learns and interacts with others in a unique way. Some people with autism need continual and virtually constant supervision, while others are able to function more independently.

Autism affects about one in 68 children, according to statistics from 2010. Estimates suggest that more than 3.5 million people in America have some type of autism spectrum disorder, and approximately 1 percent of the world has an autism spectrum disorder. This neurodevelopmental disorder may have a variety of symptoms that range from mild to severe. Mild autism might manifest with few symptoms. In fact, someone with mild autism might not seem significantly different. You might not even be aware of symptoms unless you noticed an identifying wristband. A person with autism often experiences problems communicating with others. Some people may be completely nonverbal, whereas others may have limited communication skills. Communication challenges often lead to social difficulties. An autistic person may not have the social skills that enable interaction, eye contact, responsiveness, and empathy. Autism may also cause a person to repeat specific behaviors such as gestures, jumping, rocking, or spinning. Sometimes, these behaviors can even be self-abusive, such as head-banging or biting.

Doctors do not know the definitive cause of autism. Research seems to suggest that a number of factors can contribute to a person developing an autism spectrum disorder. Both environment and genetics may be factors in the development of autism. A disruption in brain development may be a result of defective genes responsible for these processes, which may suggest a genetic connection. Environmental factors may also play a role. For example, researchers have examined a person's exposure to specific drugs in the womb, which may carry a risk for autism. Researchers are also examining the result of viral infections and chemical exposure in connection with autism.

When a young child shows behaviors or symptoms that seem unusual or concerning, such as a lack of talking or interaction with others, parents generally consult a physician. The physician will then observe the child and perform an initial screening to detect symptoms. A physician will also perform a hearing test at this time to rule out hearing loss. If an initial screening indicates that autism is a possibility, a team of physicians will conduct a more in-depth evaluation. This evaluation will include a neurological assessment designed to find cognitive and language issues that indicate an autism spectrum disorder.

Managing autism can be challenging because no two people with this disorder will present the same symptoms and issues. A person with autism will usually experience changes in symptoms as time goes on, which makes it necessary to make ongoing adjustments to daily management and therapy. A behavioral program will help the autistic person with daily functioning. This type of program helps institute a schedule for sleep, play, school, and other activities. The program will also help a family address challenges such as interaction with parents, family, peers, and others. If an autistic person struggles with anxiety and misbehavior, the program will assist the family with strategies for preventing and resolving problems. Special therapy can help the autistic person develop social and attention skills. Schools often have special learning programs designed for children with developmental disabilities. Self-management is another key to living with autism. Therapists teach the autistic person methods of recognizing negative behaviors to avoid them. Self-management may enable a person with autism to function successfully with less supervision.

What Is Autism?

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Causes of Autism

Managing Autism