Autism, sometimes referred to as infantile autism or autistic spectrum disorder, is a disorder that impairs neurologic, intellectual (cognitive functioning, cognition) and social/emotional development and functioning to varying degrees. Speech and language are impaired as a result of these difficulties. Autism is a variable and complex disorder, and thus professionals say that it exists on a spectrum. This means that the disorder can occur in many forms, ranging from mild to severe.
Research has examined several factors in
a search to find the cause of autism. Genetic factors and maternal illness
during pregnancy (i.e. rubella) are two potential causes. Fragile X syndrome
(a genetic disorder frequently causing intellectual disability, or other
physical, behavioral and developmental characteristics) occurs rarely
with autism. Other potential causes include traumatic birth and maternal
use of medication during pregnancy.
Behavioral symptoms are another mark of autism. Violent or self-injurious behaviors may be seen, as is a low tolerance for frustration. Many autistic persons are hypersensitive (overly sensitive) to light, sound, or touch; in children, this hypersensitivity may lead to behaviors and reactions that occur, seemingly, for no reason. Hyposensitivity (e.g. lack of or a depressed response) may also exist and result in behavioral issues. Behaviors may also result as a reaction to changes in routine. For example, a child may cry if his/her parent takes a different route to the grocery store. Certain behavioral issues may be viewed as underdeveloped communication attempts, and it is common among professionals to try to assess behavioral reactions in order to optimize intervention settings and assist the individual with development of more effective management/communication tools, as well as identify and treat the source of the behaviors.
As noted, speech and language development may be delayed or absent—up to 40% of autistic persons remain without speech (Gail Richards, 2000). If speech does occur, the child’s utterances may be meaningless, repetitions of commercials or others’ speech (called “scripting”). The presence of echolalia (echoing others’ responses) is not uncommon. Speech may be present but socially inappropriate. The prosody (intonation, melody, tone of voice) of autistic persons’ speech may be monotonous or sing-song in quality.
Language and communication difficulties
are hallmark in those with autism. An infant or child may not develop
the natural precursors to verbal language, e.g., shared attention to
an activity, turn taking, pointing and/or gesturing to engage with another
in a reciprocal interaction or to request. A child may gain language,
but as it becomes increasingly complex, may fail to master language as
it moves from more concrete terminology to the understanding and use
of abstract terms and ideas. Language may be a challenge throughout life
as it becomes more inferential. A person with autism may have difficulty
using language for such functions as reasoning, problem solving and identifying
and verbalizing feelings. Language may also become complicated when verbal
demands are placed on an individual within social, reciprocal interactions.
Individuals with high functioning autism frequently show issues with the social use of language, or pragmatics. These issues include those mentioned in the above paragraph. This may range from difficulties in initiating and maintaining a topic to commenting appropriately and asking and answering questions appropriately in conversation, to nonverbal behaviors (including eye contact, body proximity, facial expression and general body language). Poorly developed pragmatics would be included in impaired social skills. Reduced understanding and use of social skills are seen even in the most high-functioning persons.
Autism is usually treated in a team
meaning that the disorder is treated by a team of professionals. For
example, a psychiatrist or psychologist diagnoses autism, a speech-language
pathologists implements speech/language therapy, an occupational therapist
may attend to sensory-motor and other issues, and a behavioral therapist
may implement cognitive and behavioral therapy. An interesting link that
includes information on autism and many other disorders is www.medical-library.org.
However, access to this website requires “registration” which
includes a $9.95 annual fee.