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Definition of Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder that surfaces in approximately 1 in 500 children, usually within the first few years of life.  Autism appears to stem from neurological problems and affects many different parts of the brain, but the precise causes are yet unknown. 

At the heart of it, autism is a communicative disorder that impedes social and behavioral development.  Interactions between the autistic child and the world are impaired, even as early as infancy.  Babies with autism may focus on something so intently that they are unresponsive to their parents.  In shutting out verbal and visual cues that are critical for forming the early neural connections involved in understanding and communicating with others, the child begins at a significant deficit that can be increasingly difficult to overcome.

Autism is characterized by several behavioral symptoms that manifest with varying severities.  Symptoms generally include problems with social interactions, difficulties with communication (both verbal and nonverbal), and repetitive, obsessive behaviors.  For some autistics, the symptoms are mild enough that their behaviors can be somewhat overcome, allowing them to lead productive lives.  For others, the disorder is disabling, making it too difficult for them to live independently.

Difficulties with social interactions are the hallmark of autism.  Children with autism frequently develop normally in other ways, but have trouble connecting with others.  At a very early age, they may seem withdrawn from people and unresponsive to their names when called.  Autistic children often don't make eye contact with others and tend not to understand social aspects of playing with other children, such as taking turns.  They may also have difficulties relating and responding to their playmates because they cannot interpret facial expressions, tones of voice, or other elements of body language that express emotion.

Autistic children may also have delayed (or limited) speech development.  As babies, they often begin babbling later and with less spontaneity.  Early words and word combinations may instead be repetitive, echoing what has been said to them rather than responding to things in their own ways.  There is a communicative disconnect between the child and others that prevents them from developing natural conversation patterns.  Because they do not develop intuition about the more subtle elements of communication, autistic children instead rely upon imitation.  Their interpretation and understanding of others' speech may be similarly limited.

Repetitive behaviors often emerge in autistic children, such as rocking, twirling, or flapping the hands.  Activities may also become repetitive and strictly regimented, following a set of "rules" defined by the autistic.  Straightening, stacking, aligning, or arranging objects in a certain way might become a compulsion, for example.   As part of this, autistic children can be very inflexible, unable to adapt to changes in their environments.  If changes occur and the child feels out of control, they may be prone to tantrums.  Some autistic children also injure themselves by banging their heads or biting themselves when they are overcome with frustration.

Autism has been on the rise since the 1990's, and it is estimated that approximately 1 in every 150 children has been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a collection of developmental disorders classified by their autism-like symptoms.  It is important for parents to recognize these symptoms and begin treatments early to ensure the best possible prognosis.  There is no cure for autism and it cannot be "outgrown," but some recovery is possible with educational and medical intervention.

Defeat Autism Now (DAN) is an organization that formed in 1995 to promote collaboration between researchers, doctors, and parents of autistic children.  Through their regular conferences, the latest biomedical research publications are shared and evaluated to update the DAN Protocol, a comprehensive ASD treatment manual released to licensed DAN practitioners.  In these approaches, the drugs conventionally used to manage autism are considered the last choice.  Instead, nutritional supplements, chelation therapies, dietary modifications, and other natural methods are emphasized to offer the autistic child the safest and most effective long term treatment regimens available.

Symptoms of Autism

As described in the previous section, autism is characterized by behavioral symptoms that impact social connections, impair communication, and alter the way the child interacts with the world.  Autism is only one of several diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorders, a collection of conditions associated with the behavioral symptoms of autism, each differing somewhat in their specific symptoms and severity.  Clinically speaking, autism is defined by the presence of at least six symptoms total, at least two related to social interactions, one reflecting communication difficulties, and one involving restricted or repetitive behaviors.  The symptoms must manifest before the age of three and must not be attributable to other mental disorders.

Autistic babies are often less responsive to their parents, sometimes seemingly not recognizing them or acknowledging their attentions.  They may become intently focused on objects, showing unusual concentration for an infant.  Speech is also very often delayed in autistic children.  Babies typically begin babbling and making spontaneous sounds within their first 12 months.  If by 24 months, the sounds they make are repetitive and lack spontaneity (if they only echo sounds and words said to them), it may indicate an ASD.  As language develops in autistic children, the echoing nature of their speech patterns becomes increasingly apparent.  Many autistic children also use their names rather than "me" or "I" when expressing themselves.  

The developmental problems regarding social interactions and communication become even clearer as the autistic child gets older.  They may frequently play alone, seeming withdrawn, as though they are in a world of their own.  When they become focused on objects or activities, they may not respond to other children or to adults trying to get their attention.  Because of these and other unusual social behaviors, they may have difficulty making friends with other children.

Autistic children also develop repetitive, compulsive, or restrictive behaviors. They may, for example, repeat physical movements, such as spinning or rocking their bodies.  Some autistic children habitually flap their arms, roll their heads, or perform other seemingly purposeless movements.   They may become compulsive regarding the way that objects are arranged, persistently stacking or aligning things.   Other ritual-like behaviors may also emerge, inspiring the child to apply peculiar "rules" to their surroundings or to their daily lives.  Some autistic children have very restrictive diets, refusing to eat most foods.  Others will insist upon wearing the same clothing from day to day.

Many children with autism also display sensory disturbances.  They might be unusually sensitive to certain sounds, for example, finding them unreasonably upsetting.  Sensitivity to touch is also fairly common, causing aversions to certain textures or to being touched or hugged by another person.  In addition to this, some autistic children have extremely high thresholds for pain.  In conjunction with this, self-injury (through biting or banging the head) is fairly common.

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Article Last Updated: 08/26/2015