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Autism Awareness

autism-ribbon.jpgAutism is a developmental disability which usually appears in children by age three. While the exact effects of autism on each child are very different, one thing is the same - the sooner autism is diagnosed, the more help a child can receive to overcome or minimize the effects.

April is National Autism Awareness month, and a good time to educate parents about autism, its characteristics, and what to do if you suspect your child has autism. The following Frequently Asked Questions are from the Autism Society of America:

What is autism?

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. Autism is a spectrum disorder and it affects each individual differently and at varying degrees.

What are the most common characteristics of autism?

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. They may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their communication is often described as talking at others instead of to them. (For example, a monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments).

People with autism also process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism may also exhibit some of the following traits:

* Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
* Difficulty in expressing needs, using gestures or pointing instead of words
* Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
* Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason; showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
* Preference to being alone; aloof manner
* Tantrums
* Difficulty in mixing with others
* Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled
* Little or no eye contact
* Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
* Sustained odd play
* Spinning objects
* Obsessive attachment to objects
* Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
* No real fears of danger
* Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
* Uneven gross/fine motor skills
* Non-responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests in normal range

What is the difference between autism and PDD?

The term "PDD" is widely used by professionals to refer to children with autism and related disorders; however, there is a great deal of disagreement and confusion among professionals concerning the PDD label. Diagnosis of PDD, including autism or any other developmental disability, is based upon the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) (American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC, 1994), and is the main diagnostic reference of mental health professionals in the United States.

According to the DSM-IV, the term "PDD" is not a specific diagnosis, but an umbrella term under which the specific diagnoses are defined.

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

What distinguishes Asperger's Syndrome from autism is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger's may be only mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger's may seem just like a normal child behaving differently. They may be socially awkward, not understanding of conventional social rules, or show a lack of empathy. They may make limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation, and not understand the use of gestures.

One of the major differences between Asperger's Syndrome and autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger's. In fact, children with Asperger's frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection, or have a rhythmic nature or it may be formal, but too loud or high pitched. Children with Asperger's may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humor, or they may not recognize the give-and-take nature of a conversation.

Another distinction between Asperger's Syndrome and autism concerns cognitive ability. While some individuals with autism experience mental retardation, by definition a person with Asperger's cannot possess a "clinically significant" cognitive delay, and most possess average to above-average intelligence.

Why is early intervention so important?

Early intervention is defined as services delivered to children from birth to age 3, and research shows that it has a dramatic impact on reducing the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. Studies in early childhood development have shown that the youngest brains are the most flexible. In autism, we see that intensive early intervention yields a tremendous amount of progress in children by the time they enter kindergarten, often reducing the need for intensive supports.

If you suspect your child may have autism, talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.

For more information, visit the CDC's Autism Information Center or the website of the Autism Society of America.