A neurological disorder marked by impairment in each of three critical behavior areas: The patient must display abnormal developmental disorder in all three areas to warrant a diagnosis of autism. The disorder seems to be affected by both genetic and developmental factors. Thalidomide exposure between 20 and 24 days after conception seems to increase the likelihood of autism by about 30 times.

living with my young son
dancing to some other drum
is like staring at a starry, starry sky
trying to get a handle
on the concept of infinity.......

extract from Ooops! Wrong Planet Syndrome

Autism is one type of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), the others being Asperger's Syndrome, Rhett's Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. It is a developmental disability of the brain resulting primarily in problems with social interaction, but the overall effects are many and various, with differing degrees of severity. Many individuals will be able to lead full and meaningful lives within the community, while others are so severely affected that they will have to live out their lives in care.

Prior to the 1990s it was estimated that autism affected 5 in 10,000 live births, but recent studies show that it may now affect as many as 1 in 1000. Whether this is due to an increase in actual numbers or an increase in diagnosed cases is uncertain. Some people suggest that the increase is related to changes in diet or the vaccination program in infants but these are highly contentious issues.

Autism is ideally diagnosed at around 3 years of age but is often not spotted until much later. It is 7 times more likely to occur in boys than girls. Some people mistakenly believe that autism is a psychological problem brought on by bad parenting, but this is unfounded and places an unnecessary burden of guilt on the families involved. The widespread prevalence of autism indicates that it is not affected by race, intellect or the social status of the family, although there is some evidence of a possible genetic link.

Symptoms - begin to become apparent from around 24 - 30 months. Symptoms may be mild or strong and the pattern will be different in each individual. The following is an oversimplified list of a very complex set of behaviours:

  • language development is slow or non-existent; language may be repetitive
  • problems with auditory processing and speech; the wrong word may be chosen during speech, or the wrong meaning attached to words when being spoken to
  • gestures often used instead of words
  • exhibits solitary behaviour, may avoid touch or sounds such as human voices. Sometimes it is the case that the individual's senses are so acute that touch and sound may cause actual physical pain, but they are unable to communicate this fact until they are much older
  • lack of eye contact
  • rarely smile or laugh
  • rarely imitate others
  • sometimes appear to have a short attention span but this is actually because they are distracted by, and wish to focus on, something else
  • slow to redirect attention (for example from a toy to a person speaking to them)
  • individuals fail to recognise a relevance or connectivity between events or things, and react with fear or frustration if over-stimulated
  • rarely play imaginatively
  • uncontrollable tantrums, often for no obvious reason
  • may be overly aggressive
  • may obsess over an object, person or idea
  • inflexible adherence to certain routines or rituals
  • repetitive motor mannerisms
  • may have seizures; 1 in 4 sufferers develop significant behavioural changes during adolescence. These include convulsions and sub-clinical seizures where the individual self-injures or has aggressive tantrums, sometimes losing some of the academic and social gains that they have previously made. Some sufferers, however, experience positive behavioural changes at this time
  • While not a symptom, it is interesting to note that 1 in 10 autistic individuals (compared to less than 1% of the general population) show some degree of savant ability, including being gifted at music or art, or performing amazing feats of memory or mathematical manipulation. This is beautifully illustrated in the film Rain Man when Dustin Hoffman reads and memorises the phone book and is able to tell a stranger her phone number.
Diagnosis

To be diagnosed as having autism the individual should be shown to exhibit at least six of the above symptoms across three broad areas: social, behavioural and linguistic, as well as showing delays in communication, social interaction and play. The onset of the changes has to occur before the age of 3.

Treatment /Therapy

All too often neuroleptic drug treatment is deemed to be the way to treat adults with autism in order to keep the patients docile. This therapy originated when autism was less well understood than it is now, but continues to be the method of choice (probably through ignorance) of many practitioners today. Neuroleptic drugs have many dangerous physical side effects and should only ever be prescribed with extreme caution. The use of such drugs for people with autism can be detrimental in that they further confuse the mind and hinder communication therefore adding to the frustrations of the patient and reducing their quality of life.

Naltrexone is a beta-endorphin inhibitor which has some shown success (although results are inconsistent) as a drug therapy for autism. The theory is that there are high levels of naturally occurring beta-endorphin in the brains of people with autism, resulting in a decreased need for gaining pleasure through social interaction. By blocking the endorphin receptors, naltrexone acts to reduce background levels and therefore enhances the requirement to be sociable. The drug is also effective in reducing the tendency to self-harm.

Vitamin B6, especially in conjunction with magnesium, has long been known to be helpful in about half of all cases. It reduces the frequency, of seizures, sometimes eliminating them altogether and helps control obsessive/compulsive behaviour.

Injections of the hormone secretin are proving to be extremely useful in some autistic children. This research is still new and clinical trials are on-going; little is known about the how it works or whether there are any side effects.

Special education and behaviour modification programs are useful in many cases, but again individuals vary vastly in the severity of their autism and the need for this should be carefully assessed. Some autistics manage to cope with mainstream education, but most are overwhelmed by the social aspects of school.

Computers are proving to be extremely beneficial to people with autism. Individuals can control the level of stimulation to suit themselves and the computer provides an excellent means of communication which they can take advantage of. The computer also provides a resource to play, be creative and learn in an unthreatening and self-directed environment where users are not overloaded with external stimuli.

Relaxation, meditation, visual imagery therapy, and exercise are useful techniques for the autistic individual as well as for the rest of the so-called 'normal' population!

Outlook

While there is no cure for autism, the best that can be done is to diagnose and understand the condition early enough so that the child can grow up in an environment which is safe and suited to their own special requirements. It is sometimes possible to partially manage the symptoms with drug and/or vitamin therapy and through carefully structured education. A great deal of research is being done and hopefully in the future it will be possible for all autistic people to enjoy a good quality of life and to be happy and fulfilled.


For further information: The Autism Research Institute (ARI), is the hub of a worldwide network of parents and professionals concerned with autism. It was founded in 1967 to conduct and foster scientific research designed to improve the methods of diagnosing, treating, and preventing autism. Their web site can be found at: http://www.autism.com/ari/


References include:http://www.unc.edu/~cory/autism-info/CHALU.html
http://www.autism-society.org/
http://www.autism.org/
http://www.apana.supanet.com
http://www.shifth.mistral.co.uk/autism/
http://www.macalester.edu/~psych/whathap/UBNRP/autismopioid/treatments.htm


With thanks to The Oolong Man for his encouragement, helpful suggestions and links
I'm not even going to attempt to offer more factual information than the two excellent writeups here. ModernAngel offers a decent summary for those who want soundbite-level information, and BlueDragon fills in the details.

No, this is going to be my first attempt at a subjective node.

I have something of a vested interest in this topic, for two reasons. One is that I have a younger brother who is fully autistic. He was lucky enough to be caught around the age of two, and have his treatment begin then. Various therapeutic techniques have been tried, as there is no current, realistic hope of a cure. He is lucky enough to have two loving parents who, despite being divorced, spend a lot of time and effort to see that he grows up as normal as possible.

This isn't about him, though.

It's about me.



All the theoretical knowledge in the world, even coupled with experience dealing with PDD-spectrum disorders, will not make it so that you can truly understand what is going on inside the poor unfortunates' heads. I have begun to understand, to a degree, because I have no choice but to do so. Before anyone jumps me on this claim, I ask that you calmly finish reading what I have to say.

For starters, I have Asperger's Syndrome.

There. It's been said.

I've spent several years trying to understand other people and their worldviews, only to have it hammered home repeatedly that I really am abnormal. Repeated discussion, at length, with friends, family, co-workers, associates, and even classmates has revealed to me that, though I am considered extremely high-functioning, by the general diagnostic criteria of the PDD-spectrum, I am also far from the average.

Unlike many of my fellow PDD sufferers, though, I wasn't informed of my condition until a few months before I turned 18. When it was explained to me, and the symptoms and indications were carefully delineated, a pattern emerged. My whole life had been a horrible struggle with a disease that was subtle enough that I passed for normal in most peoples' eyes. Granted, it was at one extreme of the "normal" scale, but it was close enough to be overlooked by layman and mental health professional alike.

I take a look at the list of symptoms that BlueDragon provides, and it disturbs me, as much as it did when I first was exposed to the idea of having a PDD, to see how many of them apply to me. I won't waste your time listing them here, but any interested parties can /msg me for further details.

My childhood was characterized by a profound alienation from others. I had few friends, spent more time in the solace of books and learning than I did on the rough-and-tumble pursuits of my peers. I was the shy, soft-spoken, bespectacled nerd who could answer nearly anything the teacher asked, and frequently worked above the appropriate grade level. I am one of two people in my city to have tested high enough to enter the public school's gifted program in first grade (this number may have increased slightly in the last 5 years, which is when I stopped keeping track of it). All throughout my elementary school career, I aced nearly anything put in front of me, though I was constantly taken advantage of or abused by the people around me. Little did I know, I was fighting a battle that I had been ill-equipped to face.

Middle school and highschool were a nightmare. Freed of the rigid structure of the elementary classroom, I floundered and began to slowly slide down into the realms of Cs, Ds, and Fs. It wasn't until my freshman year of highschool that I actually failed a class, though.

Interestingly enough, it was during this time period that my parents began to lose hope of ever figuring out was "wrong" with me. Upon the advice of my school counselor, they began to treat me as if all of these things were directly and inextricably my fault. Apparently the memories of taking me to a therapist for depression at the age of eight had begun to fade from their minds...

I waded through highschool, as best I could, with the only aid being a band of friends that had assembled in answer to the social pressures of adolescence, and the sweet, sweet crutch of antidepressants. It is during the three years prior to my diagnoses that a new version of my...I'm not sure exactly how to describe this idea (a concept I will address later)...psyche, for lack of a better word, began to emerge. Rather than rolling over to verbal abuse, I learned to dish it back. I went out for the football team and successfully made into a starting position, though my social ineptness lead to much ridicule from my teammates. I also discovered a love for drama, and began delving into the world of being other people.

A knee injury, a forced trip with the Colorado Outward Bound School, and a transfer later, I returned to my true calling, and the thing that kept them from diagnosing me the longest: writing. I enrolled in a special arts program at another highschool, and, for the first time in my life, got to present myself exactly as I wished to, without someone following me and carrying stories of my past.

It was a fantastic success and a crushing failure, all at once. Though I met my fiancé there, I also was out of the program in a year, due to personality clashes with the very teacher who had fought to get me in. I moved on to write for the school newspaper and dabble in the art and photography departments, once again exhibiting non-typical behavior for someone afflicted with PDD.

My life since graduating is largely immaterial to this story, though I'll be glad to elaborate if asked.

What should have stuck out to anyone who knows about these sorts of disorders are three specific things: willing attempts at socialization, demonstration of self-driven creativity, and a stable relationship. None of these things are terribly common in PDD sufferers, and yet I displayed them all. Most amazingly, I've been told, is my command of the written word. While not masterful, by any means, I am much more effective in this medium than I ever am verbally.

I have a theory regarding this phenomenon, and it goes something like this:
Most of the social and linguistic inhibition in Asperger's and autism is related to nonverbal cues, and certain ambiguous verbal characteristics like tone, inflection, and rhythm. For those of us who are wired this way, verbal communication requires either intense intellectual effort (as we translate the cues that most respond to instinctually), or a very patient audience. The written format, however, requires a precision and descriptiveness that can be readily understood, through contemplation and careful revision (in the case of expressing ideas) or research (in the case of understanding the expression of others).

It seems, then, only natural that my intellect find a way out through the written word, when the spoken word becomes so difficult to deal with.

The best analogy I've been able to devise for this process uses the idea of a phrase book for a foreign language. When communicating verbally, I feel as if I am carefully assembling blocks from a self-made translation guide, hoping to convey my meaning without stumbling or sounding too foolish. When writing, however, I can conveniently look up anything I am uncertain of, and even include the definition I'm using without seeming too odd. Most people, aside from philosophers, don't seem to have the time or inclination to duplicate this meticulousness in spoken dialogues.

I think I've rambled enough on the subject enough for now. However, I'd be glad to expand further, if it's desired that I do so.

Edit: My earlier attempt to edit out spelling mistakes apparantly failed, so here it is, run through a spell-checker as it originally should have been.

What is Autism? Autism is a topic which is widely discussed in the book Cage of Butterflies; Autism is a biological disorder of the brain that impairs communication and social skills. Autistics have been described as being in their “own world”. Many high functioning autistics describe two worlds; “their world” and the “outside world” Many autistics describe their experience as “thinking in pictures”.

Parents or relatives of an autistic person may display autistic-like behavior, for example they might experience some communication and emotional disorders or they might repeat their behavior and have troubles with talking or expressing them selves. The symptoms of autism always depend on the person.

People affected by autism are are sometimes aggressive and might even try to harm themselves, or if the symptoms aren’t as severe, the people have learning difficulties or problems with getting along with others. The most common symptom is the serious inability to relate to other people.

For autistic children routine is a very common thing. Unlike other children, they usually do not interact with one another as others do. Constant screaming fits, rocking back and forth, arm flapping, pulling of hair, biting of their own hands and banging their heads against walls can be classified as these routine behaviors. Also urges to play with their own saliva and urine.

The worlds of autistic children can be described as being turned totally upside down. For a typical individual, we take the normal function of our five senses for granted:

  1. Vision
  2. Hearing
  3. Touch
  4. Taste
  5. Smell

An example of the impact a dysfunctional sensory system may have is, for instance

A walk Through the Neighborhood.

Take yourself for an example; the following scenario should sound like a perfectly normal thing that you are quite capable of achieving.

You, a typical individual, would have no problem walking down the street with a friend, having a conversation, hearing the sounds of the neighborhood in the background, smelling flowers, and chewing gum, all at the same time.

Whereas for an autistic individual, who has a dysfunctional sensory system, this typical experience may be totally overwhelming. The individual may be completely oblivious to the sounds of the neighborhood such as an ambulance screaming by, or may be totally overpowered by the smell of the flowers. The sun shining through the trees may be such an intense experience, it may inhibit the individual from being able to concentrate on walking down the side walk.

Some people who have over come autism as children wrote books describing their feelings and emotions. A lot of these people wrote about how some noises hurt or terrified them so they had to withdraw to their own world. Drifting away in their own world is another problem, because whilst they are doing that, autistic children are completely oblivious of what is happening in the real world, this proposes a great danger for the children.

There is no test for diagnosing autism. It is usually diagnosed by the behavior and actions of newborn babies and young children. There is also no proven cure for this disease. The reason for this is, that if one particular treatment is developed it would not work for every patient, because some patients might have more difficulties In speech, where as others might need assistance in hearing, therefore it is an individual disorder.

One excellent treatment that has been invented by an autistic adult is the Hug Box. The Hug Box is a simple soft box, into which a child could crawl if they were feeling insecure. The inventor insisted that when she was a child, she often experienced great feelings of loneliness, and often wanted someone close, so she crept under a pile of blankets and pillows.

There are also a few other methods of curing autistic children. There are usually a few teaching methods, or just a visit to a professional. Behavior Modification is one method where autistic children are taught useful skills or are taught to communicate properly. Sometimes autistic children need to attend school 6 times a week so that they would not forget a particular skill that took them months to learn. Not all autistic adults work at handicapped workshops; some actually get jobs like normal people and attend universities.

Overall, autism is a disorder which affects the brain and has no specific established cure so, hopefully a real cure will be found soon.

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