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What is Autism?

Aug 17, 2007
Autism is a neurological disorder that mainly affects social skills and language. It is almost always diagnosed by three years of age. It is defined in the DSM-4 Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders under the category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders. The DSM-4 is what doctors and other mental health professionals use to diagnose disorders that affect cognitive abilities, and mental health such as depression, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Once considered rare, autism is now more prevalent. Here's an interesting statistic: A little over 20 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control reported that autism affected 1 in 10,000 children. Today that number is 1 inn 166.

Many individuals with autism have limited verbal language skills, while some have no verbal language at all. Those with language skill have difficulty engaging in meaningful conversations. Another condition called Asperger's Syndrome has similar effects to autism in this regard. Asperger's Syndrome is named after the man who discovered the disorder, Hans Asperger, who was an Austrian pediatrician. This condition is generally diagnosed later than autism, and it primarily affects social skills. People with Asperger's Syndrome typically have average to above average cognitive abilities. Some difficulties understanding language are present in these individuals too. Understanding sarcasm, figures of speech, and other abstract concepts in language can be difficult for them.

Social skills are difficult for individuals with autism, and Asperger's Syndrome because they do not pick up on nonverbal cues or other signs to regulate their activity. For instance, most people with autism would not realize that they are talking too loudly, or too softly, or that they are too close to your face when speaking to you. Other problems that are common more specifically in autism are aggression, tantrums, pica, which is a disorder that involves the eating and mouthing of inedible objects, and self injurious behaviors. Aggression and tantrums generally go together, with the tantrum being one way that aggression manifests. Aggression can also involve biting, hitting, and destroying property.

Pica is more common in younger individuals, and those with lower cognitive abilities. It can be dangerous due to the fact that individuals with autism are not generally aware of choking hazards or poisonous materials. As far as self injurious behaviors, common ones include head banging, biting, pinching, eye gouging, smacking, and hair pulling, which if severe enough that the individual pulls out his or her hair is called trichotillomania. Some individuals may have to wear a helmet to protect themselves from severe injuries.

In addition to the social and language problems, there are many biological problems that coexist with autism as well. The most common are mental impairment, gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, yeast overgrowth, which is typically noticeable around the mouth or on the buttocks, allergies, and food sensitivities. It is not fully understood why these conditions are common in individuals with autism.

Keep in mind that autism affects many aspects of the lives of the individual and the family. Safety is a large concern due to individuals with autism not understanding risks and dangers. Running out into traffic, leaving with strangers, eating inedible items, and banging on glass windows are all common things individuals with autism may do without understanding the danger these activities place them in. At this time there is no cure for autism. However, many therapies can improve the symptoms of the disorder.
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