Friday, November 26, 2010

What is Autism? Why is it on the rise? What can we do about it?

What is Autism?

Autism is a complicated neurological disorder which affects the brain and results in a developmental disability. It is characterized by: 1) Unusual and repetitive behaviors and/or narrow obsessive interests; 2) Poor Communication; and 3) Poor social skills to include: a) lack of or difficulty with joint attention (the ability to focus on the same item, person, animal, or thing “jointly” with another person, and/or b) significantly to extremely guarded interactions.

When people talk about Autism, they may mean the entire spectrum that would include: Autism, PDD NOS, or Aspergers.

Why is it on the rise?

There has been a great deal of conflictual information regarding soaring autism rates. Some have postulated that it is caused by childhood vaccinations. This theory has been tested and rebutted multiple times. However; there is still a possibility that while perhaps not causal there may be some environmental factor(s) in the rise in autism.

Others believe that the rising rate is simply due to our better ability to recognize autism and the current interest in focusing on this particular disability. Surly there is some truth to this. We are better able to recognize autism today than twenty years ago; however, that does not explain the numbers.

Some believe that in our changing society people with milder forms of autism are having more children. This is probably the case as today there are many very successful people with some form of autism and for some, we know there is a genetic component. However; this again cannot account for all the rise in diagnoses.

Another fairly recent finding has linked the age of the parents, either the mother or the father, and the rise in autism. Some research has made a connection with older parents and an increased incidence of autism.

The bottom line is, we don’t entirely know. There may be a combination of multiple factors and/or a cause yet unknown.

What can we do about it?

Fortunately there is reason to hope. There may be medical treatments on the horizon which can significantly improve symptoms for some children. There is some promising research that may even bring about a cure or prevention for some. While it may be years before we know, some good first steps have been taken.

We also know a great deal more today about treatment, what works and for whom. Treatment is so prescriptive now that there are solid options for many according age, diagnosis, and severity. We also know that best practice includes early intervention in the child’s natural environment within the child’s natural routines and involves the parents. This type of intervention in consultation with experts in the field is relatively inexpensive, in many cases saves money over the lifetime of the child, and dramatically enhances the quality of life for both child and family. In some cases, with the right intervention and higher functioning children, it has even eliminated enough of the symptoms for the child to lose the diagnosis of autism.

Supplemental material:

Best Practice Intervention Descriptions

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