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Autism 101

I am the father of two autistic sons, “K”, 13, and “B”, 11. Whenever i bring up their autism in conversation and the person I am talking to has no idea what autism is, I am amazed, and frankly, a bit jealous. The latest statistics suggest that 1 in every 110 American children are born with autism, and I live autism, 24/7/365. This topic is apt to be written about multiple times in my blogging “career”, so I will “paint” this article with a broad stroke. It is intended as an autism “primer”, so if you are an autism veteran, you probably wont benefit from this much.

What is Autism?

Autism, or Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people.

ASDs are “spectrum disorders.” That means ASDs affect each person in different ways, and can range from very mild to severe. People with ASDs share some similar symptoms, such as problems with social interaction. But there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms.

What Causes Autism?

No one knows all of the causes of ASDs. However, there are likely many causes for multiple types of ASDs. There may be many different factors that make a child more likely to have an ASD, including environmental, biological and genetic factors.

  • Most scientists agree that genes are one of the risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop an ASD.
  • Children who have a sibling or parent with an ASD are at a higher risk of also having an ASD.
  • ASDs tend to occur more often in people who have certain other medical conditions. About 10% of children with an ASD have an identifiable genetic disorder, such as Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Down syndrome and other chromosomal disorders.
  • Some harmful drugs taken during pregnancy have been linked with a higher risk of ASDs, for example, the prescription drugs thalidomide and valproic acid.
  • There is some evidence that the critical period for developing ASDs occurs before birth, perhaps due to stressful pregnancy, etc.

Signs and Symptoms

ASDs begin before the age of 3 and last throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may improve over time. Some children with an ASD show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms might not show up until 24 months or later. In my case, “K” appeared to develop normally until around 18 to 24 months of age and then stopped gaining new skills and lost the skills he once had.

A person with an ASD might:

  • Not respond to their name by 12 months
  • Not point at objects to show interest  by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed (or no) speech and language skills
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

What Are the Treatments for ASDs?

Treatments fall into several different categories: Behavior and Communication, Dietary, Medication, and Alternative. There is no cure for autism, and what seems to be a miracle to one child may have little or no effect on another.

Behavior and Communication Approaches

  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

A notable treatment approach for people with an ASD is called applied behavior analysis (ABA). ABA has become widely accepted among health care professionals and used in many schools and treatment clinics. ABA encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors in order to improve a variety of skills.  The child’s progress is tracked and measured.

There are different types of ABA.  Following are some examples:

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

DTT is a style of teaching that uses a series of trials to teach each step of a desired behavior or response. Lessons are broken down into their simplest parts and positive reinforcement is used to reward correct answers and behaviors.  Incorrect answers are ignored.

Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI)

This is a type of ABA for very young children with an ASD, usually younger than five, and often younger than three.

Pivotal Response Training (PRT)

PRT aims to increase a child’s motivation to learn, monitor his own behavior, and initiate communication with others. Positive changes in these behaviors should have widespread effects on other behaviors.

Verbal Behavior Intervention (VBI)

VBI is a type of ABA that focuses on teaching verbal skills.

TEAACH uses visual cues to teach skills. For example, picture cards can help teach a child how to get dressed by breaking information down into small steps. This, in my opinion, is one of the most effective methods.

  • Occupational Therapy 

Occupational therapy teaches skills that help the person live as independently as possible. Skills might include dressing, eating, bathing, and relating to people.

  • Sensory Integration Therapy 

Sensory integration therapy helps the person deal with sensory information, like sights, sounds, and smells. Sensory integration therapy could help a child who is bothered by certain sounds or does not like to be touched.

  • Speech Therapy 

Speech therapy helps to improve the person’s communication skills. Some people are able to learn verbal communication skills. For others, using gestures or picture boards is more realistic.

  • The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) 

PECS uses picture symbols to teach communication skills. The person is taught to use picture symbols to ask and answer questions and have a conversation.

Dietary Approach

Various dietary approaches abound, whether it be a gluten-free diet, or vitamin/supplement programs. It is important to discuss the diet you place your child on with their doctor to be sure they are getting the correct nutrition. Some claim this is a “magic bullet” that has completely cured their child; we tried a gluten free diet with “K” and it had zero effect.

Medication Approach

There is no single drug that can be used to treat ASDs. Medications are available to treat individual symptoms, such as anxiety, energy levels, obsessive behaviors, etc. The FDA has approved Risperidone, an anti-psychotic, for use in autistic kids between the ages of 5 and 16 to combat aggressive and self-injurious behavior.

Alternative Approaches

There are many desperate parents out there, and so there are many treatments claiming to be the miracle cure. These include chelation, hyperbaric chambers, massage, and others. These should be thoroughly researched; it is estimated that 10 percent of all autistic children are undergoing treatment that is actually hazardous to their health. (Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, December 2003; vol 24)

A Final Thought

This is intended as an introductory post. Depending on its reception, I may write future articles that are a little more in-depth and relate to personal experience. If this interests you, please leave a comment, drop an email, or follow me on twitter @phdinweed.

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About phdinweed
Father of 2 sons on the autism spectrum, wage slave, socially functional nerd of all sorts. Just entered my 40's, but still love video games (RPGs especially), cartoons, fart jokes, and getting nice.

13 Responses to Autism 101

  1. Thanks for a great article. I just linked it to the Autism header on “ADD Seldom Rides Alone” — an early post in a series I’m developing on ADD Comorbidities.

    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CMC, SCAC, MCC
    – cofounder of the ADD Coaching field –
    (blogging at ADDandSoMuchMore and ADDerWorld – dot com!)
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  2. Pingback: ADD seldom rides alone « ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Pingback: » Golfing and/or Drinking for Developmental Disabilities! Zazen Life

  4. Katrina says:

    Please continue to write about this topic. Also, I think it would be great if you use your children as examples. This is a great blog

    • phdinweed says:

      Thanks so much for your comment. I followed your blog, and hope you will come back and see us often. We have many great contributors, and I promise you will never be bored.

  5. TheTaoOfD says:

    great article phdinweed. learned a lot. always knew what autism was but i guess you can say i never fully understood it. i just want to say that i have a lot of respect for you, posting this article up, letting the audience into your personal life and all! excellent post, very informative! love all ur posts man.

  6. Absolutely fascinating post. I have learned so much!

  7. K.Creamore says:

    Nice post on ASD. Being in the field of social work I see the spectrum on a daily basis and am saddened with peoples ignorance about this issue facing millions of people. I have worked with families that just given up and can’t deal anymore with the ASD. It takes people like yourself with great courage and strength to help. Keep up the good work you may not see it, but your are making a difference!

    • phdinweed says:

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and say so! I hope you’ll come by often. We have a lot of great contributors here! Stay tuned for more posts relating to personal experience.

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