Most people have heard about autism and it is a recognizable childhood constraint that is not so uncommon that you are never likely to come across somebody who suffers with autism: in fact, as many as 1 in every 110 individuals is autistic, with a higher incidence of males to females. There is no need to avoid people with autism, however, as they can’t pass it on to you and you can’t catch it from them no matter what you do or how close you get. Autism is something sufferers are born with. It is regarded as a disorder that affects the child’s development due to the activities of the brain being affected.
In fact, autism fits into a group of developmental conditions that has become known, in recent years, as PDD, or pervasive developmental disorder. The best known one of these PDDs is autism which is the reason that this group of developmental disorders is often referred to as ASD, or autism spectrum disorder. This often causes problems with communication and the normal childhood milestones. It also results in a person with autism having problems with social interactions, sometimes having an intelligence that is lower than average, or having an intelligence that is higher than average. People who are known to be autistic have great difficulty relating to people at an everyday level, with children often experiencing hindered language development.
Sensory perception is also affected, with altered states of awareness, lighter and brighter colors, louder sounds and more intense smells: in fact, everything experienced appears to be at a more profound intensity than individuals without this developmental disability. Another well-known condition that comes within the aegis of PDD is Asperger syndrome, whilst Rett Syndrome and CDD [childhood disintegrative disorder] are two lesser known developmental disorders within this particular spectrum of medical disorders.
Is it Known how Autism Occurs?
Autism affects each sufferer differently and, for every person with autism, there is a different degree of affliction, some having autistic symptoms that are very mild whilst others are very profoundly affected. It is this wide spectrum that causes doctors to believe that autism is partly due to genetics and partly due to influencing environmental aspects. So far researchers have established that autism is not caused by any viral infection and, although a family with one autistic child is more likely to have another, they know autism doesn’t occur as the result of anything the parents have done when raising their children.
Within our brains there are 100 billion neurons. These neurons, or nerve cells, carry electrical impulses that jump across little gaps between the many thousands of connections. These gaps are called synapses. The way electrical currents can jump across synapses is due to a biochemical process that lowers the number of potassium chemicals [potassium ions] on one side of the synapse whilst, at the same time, increasing the number of sodium ions. This is referred to as ‘opening the gateway’.
When the gateway opens, there is an exchange of ions from one neuron to the next, enabling the electrical impulse to jump across the gap. The gateway then closes behind it and another gateway opens in front of it. In this way an electrical impulse leaves the brain and will travel to different parts of the body. All our senses depend on these electrical impulses, including communication and how we behave. The gateways are affected by the quantity of chemical messengers the brain sends out: these are called neurotransmitters and they are chemicals as well.
There are lots of different kinds, such as dopamine and serotonin, although there are many more. Each one interacts with another one and they all rely on a very delicate balance between all of them, so it is hardly surprising that, sometimes, things don’t go exactly according to plan and something gets mixed up or misfires. This can cause problems such as autism.
Other from that, research continues. At present doctors and researchers still don’t know for sure why some children develop autism and why some children don’t. Furthermore, there are no tests that can identify whether a child is exhibiting autistic symptoms or not. Usually, autism is identified when a child is aged between 18 months and 4 years, often by doctors ruling out other causes for the child’s lack of spontaneity or development.
The diagnosis eventually rests on experts’ observation of the child’s behavior and presence or absence of communication. Eventually, the diagnosis is established by listening to the parents’ observations of how their child responds within the home environment, along with reports from neurologists, child psychologists and pediatricians. Ultimately, these reports are considered along with the known childhood milestones, enabling a pattern of persistent behavior to emerge.
Living with Autism
Autism is a developmental disorder for which there is no cure. However, the effects of the autism can often be minimized by teaching the child how to cope with it. The child develops specific skills for coping with the problem, eventually learning how to minimize the effects of autism in their lives and their surrounding family. Despite this, there is no getting away from the potentially devastating effects autism can have on how the surrounding family is able to cope. Some families manage better than others, but the sooner treatment begins the sooner a child with autism can begin to adapt to the incomprehensible world they have found themselves in.
As the child grows it becomes evident how the autism is affecting them: this will affect the kind of treatment they will be offered. Treatment will be managed within the team allocated as being responsible for that child. This team will be made up of child psychologists, pediatricians, neurologists and probably social workers, as well as other ancillary professionals such as speech therapists and behavioral therapists amongst others.
Treatment for an autistic child will be organized to make the most of the skills they have, and maximizing the skills they need to have to be able to cope with their lives. Such therapies may include speech therapy, occupational therapy and even music therapy and may, or may not, also include course of medications as well. Another therapy that is becoming particularly popular due to its efficacy is art therapy. Although many children with autism eventually succeed within mainstream education, some autistic children are better suited to being educated at a special school that can cope with behavioral difficulties.
A person growing up with autism will always be aware that they are living in an incomprehensible world. Hopefully, however, by the time they are adults they should have developed the skills to deal with most problems they may encounter, although this isn’t always the case. It is important to remember that the brains of people with autism function differently to everybody else, including many of the fellow sufferers. Social cues such as body language and facial expressions can cause them perplexity, causing them to behave in a manner that may seem strange. Their behavior may even make you feel uncomfortable and prefer to avoid them. Basically, however, somebody growing up with autism doesn’t have the social skills to pick up the unspoken cues that people around them provide all the time.
Frustration can be a big problem for children with autism because they are unable to express themselves adequately. They may want to make friends but be unable to do so because they don’t know how to go about it. This can cause tantrums or behavior that could be perceived as aggression, or they may behave in ways that could be interpreted as inappropriate, causing the recipient of such behavior to feel very uncomfortable indeed. Although people with autism don’t experience emotions and want to show affection, their interpretation of how this affection should be shown is an individual experience. It is one that could probably not be accepted as the ‘norm’, perhaps if you hug them they will pull away because they don’t like the experience of being touched.
Sudden noises can cause people with autism to become easily startled as their senses are greatly heightened. They respond best to routines as changes in their daily pattern of living can cause them to become extremely anxious: rigorous routine helps them to maintain a degree of control over their lives that, in many ways, are dominated by the will of somebody else’s control. There are some individuals with autism for whom repetitive movements represent their fragile control over their lives and, to them, mean that the world will be all right that day. Different objects and ideas can represent real occurrences in their lives: perhaps avoiding all foods with a certain color, or counting the number of red cars they pass on the way to school: a certain number meaning it will be a good day and a different number resulting in a bad day, with all subsequent emotion and behavior stemming from these arbitrary encounters.