Autism is one of the most recognized conditions, thanks to being regularly featured in media. Paradoxically, it is not understood well by the general public, which instead relies on misconceptions and inaccurate information. What is commonly referred to autism is a part of a larger group of neurodevelopmental disabilities, referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASDs. It is characterized by inhibited communication and social skills, as well as various behavioral patterns (Myers and Johnson 1163). It starts affecting the brain functioning from as early as 18 months but persists throughout life, which leads to problems in working and leisure activities. It is not “curable” and requires chronic management. That means people affected by it need to be aided to deal with its effects.
Autism was first described in 1943 by Dr. Leo Kanner. Since then, its definition has changed, and its understanding has grown tremendously. Nevertheless, a lot of people still conceive it from obsolete or incomplete facts and misconceptions. Sadly, this is also true among workers of educational and even medical fields. This leads to ineffective interaction with autistic people. Contrary to popular belief, people affected by autism, both children and adults, can laugh, smile and show other signs of affection, are able to maintain eye contact, and show other emotions, both positive and negative, to a varying degree. They react to surroundings in the same way a non-autistic person would, though with different intensity.
As each of autistic persons is a unique individual, their personal characteristics also add to variations in their behavior. Those who are only mildly affected can show little difference from non-autistic individuals in both social interaction and communication. Usually, however, communication presents a serious challenge. The verbal communication may take the form of a monolog with the rejection of replies (known as “talking at others”). Another well-known symptom is over- or undersensitivity of the sensory perception. Certain sounds can be painful, neutral smells may induce vomiting, and certain colors can be painful to look at or perceived as unpleasant. Some specialists go as far as suggesting that these sensory integration difficulties are a cause, rather than a result, of autistic behaviors (Mesibov et al. 59). Another symptom, popularized by the media, is their engagement in repetitive and compulsive behavior. The former usually includes repetitive moves, like flapping a hand or rocking. The latter can be seen in arranging objects, such as toys or books, in patterns, and creating behavioral patterns in daily routines, like insisting on eating only certain combination of food based on the day of the week, or maintaining a fixed number of steps when moving from one room to the other (Lam and Aman 858).
There is no definitive theory on what causes autism. It is known that autism is a result of improper functioning of nerve cells in the brain, which causes information processing, but the exact mechanism is yet to be understood (Levy et al. 1628). There is a dominating consensus that its major cause is of genetic origin, with the so-called “Fragile X syndrome”, among others (Chaste and Leboyer 284). Other possible causes are being researched, like the social and environmental factors, viral infections, pregnancy conditions and metabolic imbalances. Several factors, like vaccination being the cause of autism, have been extensively studied and long disproved, but persist as a public misconception, leading to reluctance to vaccinate children (Rutter 6).
Whatever the cause, it is clear that autism is something a person is either born with, or predisposed to, from the birth. It is not caused by improper parenting or other psychological factors. It is not a mental disorder. And it is not the result of a child choosing to misbehave.
Autism can be diagnosed as early as two years, which has lead to a misconception that it is a childhood disorder. However, diagnosing autism is complicated by a number of factors. Its symptoms are shared by several other disorders, like mental disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, and even hearing impairment. They also may not be featured prominently or be suppressed by personal traits. So diagnosing autism requires prolonged monitoring of development, communication, and behavior (Cohen 104).
Several screening techniques were devised as the understanding of the disorder improved. The most recent is the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers or M-CHAT. Some countries choose to screen only those children who are reported by their parents to have behavioral abnormalities while the USA screens all children between the age of 18 and 30 months. The M-CHAT is not conclusive and is usually paired with other screening tools (Wetherby et al. 509).
As autism can not be cured, treatment of people affected by it consists instead of teaching them to cope with it in their daily lives, lessening its negative effects and increasing their independence. If properly and timely addressed, its symptoms can either be reduced to a manageable magnitude or, in some cases, disappear altogether. Various techniques of behavior therapy and special education programs have been developed and successfully implemented. In all, we can say the lives of those affected by autism can not be reverted to normal as we understand it, but can be brought really close to it if the condition is not neglected or ignored. This means not only continuing the research and improving teaching and social techniques but also raising awareness and understanding of the topic among the general public. A lot of difficulties experienced by autistic people could be averted or diminished if their surrounding knows what to expect and how to react.
Chaste, Pauline and Marion Leboyer. “Autism Risk Factors: Genes, Environment, and Gene-Environment Interactions.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14.3 (2012): 281-292. Print.
Cohen, Shirley. Targeting Autism, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2006. Print.
Lam, Kristen S. L., and Michael G. Aman. “The Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised: Independent Validation in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 37.5 (2006): 855-866. Print.
Levy, Susan E, David S Mandell, and Robert T Schultz. “Autism.” The Lancet 374.9701 (2009): 1627-1638. Print.
Mesibov, Gary B., Lynn W. Adams, and Laura G. Klinger. Autism: Understanding the Disorder, New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013. Print.
Myers, Scott, and Chris P. Johnson. “Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Pediatrics 120.5 (2007): 1162-1182. Print.
Rutter, Michael. “Incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders: Changes Over Time and Their Meaning.” Acta Paediatrica 94.1 (2005): 2-15. Print.
Wetherby, Amy M., Brosnan-Maddox, Susan, Peace, Vickie, and Newton, Laura. “Validation of the Infant-Toddler Checklist as a Broadband Screener for Autism Spectrum Disorders from 9 To 24 Months of Age.” Autism 12.5 (2008): 487-511. Print.