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Autism 101

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 au·tism [ áw tìzzem ]
Definition:
condition disturbing perceptions and relationships: a disturbance in psychological development in which use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the world, and the formation of relationships are not fully established and follow unusual patterns.
What Causes Autism?:
The bottom line is, no one really knows for sure what causes autism. Most experts will say that autism is probably caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Even those experts, though, do not have a definite answer. For many people, this uncertainty is terribly frustrating. On the plus side, interest in and funding for autism research is on the rise, so new and better information should be forthcoming in the next months and years.
Do Vaccines Cause Autism?: 
​There are two theories that link autism and vaccines. The first theory suggests that the MMR (Mumps-Measles-Rubella) vaccine may cause intestinal problems leading to the development of autism. The second theory suggests that a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, used in some vaccines, could be connected to autism.
Is Autism Genetic?: 
It is very likely that autism has a genetic basis of some sort. Many studies have shown that parents from families with autistic members are more likely to have autistic children. It is also the case that many families with one autistic child are at increased risk of having more than one autistic child.
Is Autism Caused by Bad Parenting?: 
No. Dr. Kanner, the man who first identified autism as a unique condition, had the idea that cold “refrigerator” mothers caused autism. He was wrong. Dr. Kanner's misinterpretation of autism created a generation of parents carrying the guilt for their child's disability. Fortunately, our generation is spared that burden! 
Is Autism Caused By Atypical Brain Development?: 
Some researchers have found differences between the autistic brain and the typical brain. Autistic individuals seem to have larger brains. They also seem to process information differently; in other words, their brains are "wired" differently. Research on this issue is ongoing at The University of Pittsburgh. 
Is Autism an Immune Deficiency Problem?: 
There is some evidence that autism is linked to problems in the immune system. Autistic individuals often have other physical issues related to immune deficiency. Some researchers say they have developed effective treatments based on boosting the immune system. The NIH, however, states that the evidence is not yet strong enough to show a causal relationship.
Is Autism Caused By Food Allergies?: 
There is some evidence that allergies to certain foods could contribute to autistic symptoms. Most people who hold to this theory feel that gluten (a wheat product) and cassein (a dairy product) are the most signficant culprits. Explore the Autism Institute's website for more on this theory.
Is Autism Caused By Poor Nutrition?:
​It seems unlikely that malnutrition, per se, can cause autism. But megavitamin therapies have been used for many years to treat autistic symptoms. Dr. Bernard Rimland, of the Autism Institute, has been a leader in this area.
So...What DOES Cause Autism?:
​It seems likely, given the research so far, that several factors combine to cause autism. For example, it may be that certain children are genetically more susceptible to certain types of food allergies, or more likely to react badly to certain environmental toxins. Until we have more definitive answers, though, it seems to make sense to focus more on treatments -- and to support researchers as they learn more about causes. 
Autism Spectrum Disorders Definitions
​Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder which affects social and communication skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, motor and language skills. It is such a broad diagnosis that it can include people with high IQ's and mental retardation - and people with autism can be chatty or silent, affectionate or cold, methodical or disorganized. So, what exactly is an autism spectrum disorder? These articles are a good place to get the basics:
Symptoms of Autism
​There is a saying in the autism field: "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." In other words: every person on the autism spectrum is unique, and one person's set of symptoms is just that ... one person's set of symptoms! This is, in part, because autism is a spectrum disorder: you can be a little autistic or very autistic.But there's more to it. An array of problems are relatively common among autistic people such as seizure disorders, gastrointestinal issues, mental retardation and mental illness. At this point, no one knows why these conditions are so common among people with autism spectrum disorders. It is possible that these additional conditions are indicators of different kinds of autism, each caused by a slightly different set of circumstances.While the conditions listed above are more common among autistic people than among the general population, they are by no means universal among people on the autism spectrum. In fact, many autistic people have no apparent mental or physical illness at all.

Social and Communication Symptoms
​Most of the time, autism is suspected in a child or adult because of deficits or stereotyped differences in social and communication skills. Some examples of these differences include:Delayed or unusual speech patterns (many autistic children, for example, memorize video scripts and repeat them word for word with the precise intonation as the TV characters)  High pitched or flat intonation Lack of slang or "kidspeak" Difficulty understanding tone of voice and body language as a way of expressing sarcasm, humor, irony, etc.Lack of eye contact Inability to take another's perspective (to imagine oneself in someone else's shoes)While many autistic people have terrific language skills, there are many who have no language at all. In between, are people whose verbal skills are idiosyncratic: They may be perfectly able to talk, but have a difficult time with conversation, small talk, and slang.

Sensory and Motor Symptoms
​A majority of autistic people are either hyper or hypo sensitive to light, sound, crowds and other external stimulation. Some have both hyper and hypo sensitivities. This often results in autistic people covering their ears, avoiding or reacting negatively to brightly lit areas, or -- on the other hand -- crashing hard into sofas and craving strong bear hugs.While it's unusual to find an autistic person who is obviously physically disabled as a result of the disorder, most autistic people do have some level of fine and gross motor difficulty. This often manifests itself in poor handwriting, difficulty with athletic coordination, etc. As a result, when autistic people get involved with sports, it's usually in individual, endurance sports such as running and swimming.

​Personality Differences
​While autistic people do differ from one another radically, it is fairly typical for people on the spectrum to:      Engage in repetitive behaviors and ritualized activities, ranging from lining up items to following a rigid routine,        

Have one or a few passionate interests, 

Have difficulty in making and keeping multiple friends,   

​Prefer activities that require relatively little verbal interaction.

It also seems to be the case -- for as-yet-undetermined reasons -- that certain interests are of particular interest to many people on the autism spectrum. For example, an enormous number of young children with ASD's are fascinated by trains (and the Thomas the Tank Engine toy), while a great many older children and adults on the spectrum are very interested in computers, science, technology, and animals.

Top 10 Facts About Autism

​1. Autism Is a 'Spectrum' Disorder
People with autism can be a little autistic or very autistic. Thus, it is possible to be bright, verbal, and autistic as well as mentally retarded, non-verbal and autistic. A disorder that includes such a broad range of symptoms is often called a spectrum disorder; hence the term "autism spectrum disorder." The most significant shared symptom is difficulty with social communication (eye contact, conversation, taking another's perspective, etc.). 

2. Asperger Syndrome is a High Functioning Form of Autism
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is considered to be a part of the autism spectrum. The only significant difference between AS and High Functioning Autism is that people with AS usually develop speech right on time while people with autism usually have speech delays. People with AS are generally very bright and verbal, but have significant social deficits (which is why AS has earned the nickname "Geek Syndrome").
​3. People With Autism Are Different from One Another 
If you've seen Rainman or a TV show about autism, you may think you know what autism "looks like." In fact, though, when you've met one person with with autism you've met ONE person with autism. Some people with autism are chatty; others are silent. Many have sensory issues, gastrointestinal problems, sleep difficulties and other medical problems. Others may have social-communication delays - and that's it. 
​4. There Are Dozens of Treatments for Autism - But No 'Cure'
​So far as medical science is aware, there is at present no cure for autism. That's not to say that people with autism don't improve, because many improve radically. But even when people with autism increase their skills, they are still autistic, which means they think and perceive differently from most people. Children with autism may receive many types of treatments. Treatments may be biomedical, sensory, behavioral, developmental or even arts-based. Depending upon the child, certain treatments will be more successful than others. 
5. There Are Many Theories on the Cause of Autism, But No Consensus
​You may have seen or heard news stories about possible causes of autism. Theories range from mercury in infant vaccines to genetics to the age of the parents to almost everything else. At present, most researchers think autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors - and it's quite possible that different people's symptoms have different causes. 
6. People Don't Grow Out of Autism
Autism is a lifelong diagnosis. For some people, often (but not always) those who receive intensive early intervention, symptoms may decrease radically. People with autism can also learn coping skills to help them manage their difficulties and even build on their unique strengths. But a person with autism will probably be autistic throughout their lives. 
7. Families Coping with Autism Need Help and Support
Even "high functioning" autism is challenging for parents. "Low functioning" autism can be overwhelming to the entire family. Families may be under a great deal of stress, and they need all the non-judgemental help they can get from friends, extended family, and service providers. Respite care (someone else taking care of the person with autism while other family members take a break) can be a marriage and/or family-saver! 
8. There's No 'Best School' for a Child with Autism
You may have heard of a wonderful "autism school," or read of a child doing amazingly well in a particular type of classroom setting. While any given setting may be perfect for any given child, every child with autism has unique needs. Even in an ideal world, "including" a child with autism in a typical class may not be the best choice. Decisions about autistic education are generally made by a team made up of parents, teachers, administrators and therapists who know the child well. 
9. There Are Many Unfounded Myths About Autism
The media is full of stories about autism, and many of those stories are less than accurate. For example, you may have heard that people with autism are cold and unfeeling, or that people with autism never marry or hold productive jobs. Since every person with autism is different, however, such "always" and "never" statements simply don't hold water. To understand a person with autism, it's a good idea to spend some time getting to know him or her - personally!
​10. Autistic People Have Many Strengths and Abilities 
It may seem that autism is a wholly negative diagnosis. But almost everyone on the autism spectrum has a great to deal to offer the world. People with autism are among the most forthright, non-judgemental, passionate people you'll ever meet. 

Top 7 Autism Myths

1. Autistic People Are All Alike
Myth: If I’ve met an autistic person (or seen the movie Rain Man), I have a good idea of what all autistic people are like.Fact: Autistic people are as different from one another as they could be. The only elements that ALL autistic people seem to have in common are unusual difficulty with social communication.
2. Autistic People Don't Have Feelings
Myth: Autistic people cannot feel or express love or empathy.Fact: Many -- in fact, most -- autistic people are extremely capable of feeling and expressing love, though sometimes in idiosyncratic ways! What's more, many autistic people are far more empathetic than the average person, though they may express their empathy in unusual ways.
3. Autistic People Don't Build Relationships
Myth: Autistic people cannot build solid relationships with others. Fact: While it’s unlikely that an autistic child will be a cheerleader, it is very likely that they will have solid relationships with, at the very least, their closest family members. And many autistic people do build strong friendships through shared passionate interests. There are also plenty of autistic people who marry and have satisfying romantic relationships.
4. Autistic People Are a Danger to Society
Myth: Autistic people are dangerous. Fact: Recent news reports of an individual with Asperger Syndrome committing violent acts have led to fears about violence and autism. While there are many autistic individuals who exhibit violent behaviors, those behaviors are almost always caused by frustration, physical and/or sensory overload, and similar issues. It’s very rare for an autistic person to act violently out of malice.
​5. All Autistic People Are Savant
sMyth: Autistic people have amazing “savant” abilities, such as extraordinary math skills or musical skills.Fact: It is true that a relatively few autistic people are “savants.” These individuals have what are called “splinter skills” which relate only to one or two areas of extraordinary ability. By far the majority of autistic people, though, have ordinary or even less-than-ordinary skill sets.
6. Autistic People Have No Language Skills
Myth: Most autistic people are non-verbal or close to non-verbal.Fact: Individuals with a classic autism diagnosis are sometimes non-verbal or nearly non-verbal. But the autism spectrum also includes extremely verbal individuals with very high reading skills. Diagnoses at the higher end of the spectrum are increasing much faster than diagnoses at the lower end of the spectrum.
7. Autistic People Can't Do Much of Anything
​Myth: I shouldn’t expect much of an autistic person.
Fact: This is one myth that, in my opinion, truly injures our children. Autistic individuals can achieve great things -- but only if they're supported by people who believe in their potential. Autistic people are often the creative innovators in our midst. They see the world through a different lens,
​and when their perspective is respected,
they can change the world.