All About Autism

A mother shares her advice on raising a child with autism.

A century ago, the word autism didn’t even exist. Now, doctors are diagnosing withdrawn children with the disorder every single day. It begs the question: Is autism an epidemic, or was it simply misdiagnosed in the past?

The original meaning of autism is “escape from reality.” Psychiatrist Leo Kanner first used the term in 1941 to refer to several children in his treatment center that showed no interest in other people or their surroundings; however, reports of individuals with autistic traits occur throughout history – take, for example, Peter the Wild Boy, a child who was discovered living in the woods in Germany in 1725. Even after being brought to London, this “feral child” never learned to speak, and walked on all fours like an animal for the rest of his life. Before the diagnosis of autism, most individuals with the disorder were lumped together either with the mentally challenged or the mentally ill, and were treated as such.

So what is autism, exactly? Characteristics of the disorder include poor social skills, an inability to understand others’ needs and emotions, poor coordination, and limited, obsessive interests. Individuals with autism are often said to be “mind blind” – that is, they aren’t able to understand the behavior of fellow human beings, which makes communication with the outside world exceedingly difficult.

Other disorders that are often associated with autism include Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe.

Fortunately, much progress has been made into the field of autism research in the last decade. Today, with appropriate treatment, many people with mild autism are active, participating members of their communities. Although no cure has been found for the condition, there are several well-developed and widely used approaches for treatment.

The most effective programs disclose an emphasis on early, appropriate, and intensive interventions. Parents of autistic children should explore any and all treatment options thoroughly, and may want to explore the possibility of joining a support group. If you are the parent of an autistic child, you are far from alone: Experts estimate as many as 1 in 150 American children will have some form of autism. Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.

$30 million for early identification and $16.5 million for education and surveillance are included in the 2008 federal budget, so if you believe your child may be autistic, take advantage of the government-provided resources available to seek help. You can also find hundreds of helpful information sources, such as Autism Speaks, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, YAI, and Autism Information Center, on the Internet.

On a personal note, our son has autism. After we brought him home, we became aware of his differences within a few months. We placed him in early intervention at age 3, with as much therapy as we could afford. Luckily, he was on the broad spectrum, and after a few years of intensive training, he was able to function at the level of his peers in most ways. Now 13, he has made the honor society in a mainstream school and can speak 3 languages. We find that his creativity, compassion, and other talents more than compensate for whatever problems his autism may create.

Learn the early warning signs of autism and if you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk to your doctor. Early intervention could make a big difference in your child’s future – it certainly has in our family.