If you are reading this, you likely know someone who is in some way touched by autism. You will see vastly different numbers in the media about how common autism is, depending on which study is being used as a reference point. No matter what numbers you read, it is clear that autism is one of the most common afflictions facing children throughout the world.
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder, because it effects every person differently and symptoms can be varied. Yet the basic criteria are simple. First, the disorder typically occurs prior to age 3. Second, children with autism typically have difficulty with reciprocal communication. Some have difficulty speaking, while others can develop speech normally but have difficulty being understood and understanding others. Third, children with autism have certain behavioral differences: they can be obsessed with specific objects (such as trains), specific concepts (such as timetables), compulsively line items up in a row, flap their hands and arms, exhibit self-injurious behaviors, be hyper-sensitive to sounds or touch, or exhibit generally bizarre and misunderstood behavior. By appearance, children on the autism spectrum resemble normal neurotypical children, but their behavior and communication difficulties typically sets them apart.
WHAT CAUSES AUTISM?
While there are some factors that are known to increase the risk of autism in children, there is really no known single cause of autism. It is known that children with autism have differences in size and structure of the brain as compared to those of neurotypical children. Causes related to heredity, genetics and “epigenetics”, birth-related medical problems and environmental factors are being researched.
TREATMENT FOR AUTISM
There are hundreds of treatments that claim to “cure” autism that can be found on the internet and in other places. The vast majority of those who claim to “cure” autism are fraudulent. Yet, there are certain forms of treatment that if begun early enough can lead to a child with autism to be indistinguishable from his or her peers. The first and most critical piece of information regarding autism is this: the earlier treatment is begun the more likely a positive outcome. The concept of neuroplasticity is often discussed as an explanation: younger children’s brains are simply better able to learn and be modified by experience than older children. The second most important component of understanding treatment of autism is that the only intervention (or set of interventions) that has substantial evidence supporting its effectiveness is called applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA is both a theoretical and practical approach to treating autism. While there are hundreds of interventions that fall within the category of ABA, they all share certain characteristics: they are based on learning new skills (or “unlearning” certain skills), they are behaviorally and data-driven, they are systematic, and they focus on understanding and properly treating behavior based on the function of that behavior.