World Autism Day: The Basics Of Autism Explained


Autism is a complex neurological disorder. It affects social interaction and communication skills. It typically affects/or is noticed in the infant and toddler stages and many symptoms may remain for life. Autism is not a mental illness. Autism is a Spectrum Disorder. A spectrum disorder is one in which each individual with the disorder may present a varying combination of symptoms from a set of defined behaviours. Two people with autism may not exhibit the same characteristics. The disorder can range from the mild to severe. Other similar disorders are Asperger’s disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Rett’s Disorder and Childhood Disintegration Disorder.

Who is affected by autism?

Autism affects people irrespective of socio-economic, racial differences. It seems to affect more boys than girls. No definitive information is available on susceptibilities and causative factors.

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Behavioural characteristics of a child with Autism:

  • Speech and verbal communication are usually different from normal children:
  • May not respond when called by name
  • May intone answers to question exactly like the question
  • May echo words
  • May respond to music/musical sounds more easily
  • Speech milestones may be delayed.
  • Body Language:
  • May not make eye contact
  • May not respond with affectionate cuddles or smiles even to the mother/care giver.
  • May dislike being touched
  • May seem insensitive to pain
  • May scream as if in pain when given a haircut, or when nails are cut.
  • May make rocking movements; flap hands or other repetitive body movements.
  • Sensual perception ( audio, visual, olfactory etc) may be different from normal people.
  • Odd behaviour at play:
  • May not be involved in group play.
  • May line up objects for hours together
  • May be interested in circular motion of toys/objects
  • Other odd behavioural characteristics:
  • Maybe obsessively attached to some toys and some clothes and may reject others
  • May not exhibit fear when scolded.
  • May scream and exhibit aggressive behaviour without provocation. Sometimes may act self injuriously.

What Causes Autism?

No definitive causative factors have been identified. Familial connection and genetic factors are suspected.Autism is not caused by parental neglect.

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Diagnosis :

Diagnosis of Autism is a little tricky. There are characteristic behaviours, but the child may display only some symptoms. Each individual displays a varying combination of symptoms. Some children have multiple problems like retardation or delayed speech, which complicates matters. Quite often autistic children with normal IQ are dubbed retarded. Even those in the healthcare profession may not detect autism.

Parents or caregivers have to be watchful in the early years. Especially speech and communication milestones have to be observed keenly. Even though each child progresses at its own pace, when there are delays it is better to check with a paediatrician. Early diagnosis and consequent early intervention give the child the best chance he or she can have in overcoming problems.

Can autism be cured?

The heart-wrenching answer is NO, not yet anyhow.

However, the conditions for helping autistic children integrate with their immediate environment and peers are improving significantly. A combination of early intervention, special education, family support, and in some cases, medication, is helping autistic children inch towards more normal lives.

A multidisciplinary effort is required. The parent, speech pathologist, occupational therapist have to work with the child. A neurologist’s inputs may be necessary.

The child must be sent to a special education centre. Education or intervention must be individualised. The evaluation must be personal and not be expected to reach a class average or be in comparison to other children, even other autistic children.

Autistic children may respond to sensory stimuli differently. Even the volume of the teacher’s voice, the touch of the helpers might make each child react differently.

A two-pronged approach should be more meaningful:

  • Helping the autistic child emote, smile, express affection, relate to peers etc.
  • Helping the autistic child to acquire skills that help him/her deal with the environment.

Play and music are modes that can help an autistic child learn. Some autistic children have sleep disturbances, hyperactivity or other problems that need medical intervention. Caregivers should remember that therapy is not a one time/short span effort. It is a continuous process.

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