The more we know about autism, the better

Unless you know someone who is on the autism spectrum, you likely don’t know much about this condition. Autism is a complex mental condition and developmental disability that is characterized by difficulties in the way a person communicates and interacts with others. Autism is usually diagnosed within the first three years of life and is a lifelong developmental disability with no known cause. No two people on the autism spectrum have the same set of symptoms although there certainly are common characteristics.

People with autism have difficulties interacting with other people. Children low on the spectrum may show clumsy behavior and be “out of sync” with those around them, or make inappropriate or offensive comments. At the other end of the autism spectrum they may show no interest in other children at all. People on the autism spectrum find it is difficult to show any regard for the feelings of others although they can be taught to acknowledge others’ feelings by making reference to their own feelings.

Many times those on the autism spectrum do not like physical contact because it can be too stimulating or simply hurt. Many people on the spectrum find that physical touch just like sounds, smells or light can be overwhelming, even though to those of us not on the spectrum, the level is “normal.” Changes in these stimuli can also be overwhelming to those with autism. Other changes such as changes to routines can be distressing as well, and the person may resort to pacing or engaging in repetitive movements (“stimming”) in order to calm themselves.

The speech of some children on the spectrum can be marked by “echolalia,” wherein the child repeats the sounds or words that they hear. The speech tone of a person with autism may be robotic and inflection- less. Children on the autism spectrum may demonstrate obsessive behaviors such as lining up their toys perfectly and becoming “experts” on their subject of interest, while having no interest in other children’s interests. Therefore they try to dominate the conversation if they converse at all. They may also show an unpredictable learning rate and have physical tics. Many children with autism rarely smile.

In the U.S., autism affects one in every 110 children, which translates to one in every 150 people. The hallmark of autism is impaired social interaction. As early as infancy, babies may be unresponsive to people, ignore others when called by their name, avoid eye contact, and focus exclusively on an object. As children, those with autism have difficulty because they cannot understand social cues such as tone of voice or facial expressions and therefore they appear to lack empathy.

Many children with autism engage in repetitive movements such as rocking or twirling or in self-abusive behaviors such as head banging or biting. They usually start speaking later than other children, and may refer to themselves by name rather than “I” or “me.” These children have difficulty making friends and keeping friends. They usually have no ability to engage in imaginative play or creative play.

About 20 percent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood — this is especially noted in children whose language skills regress before the age of 3. It is important to have children suspected of having autism be thoroughly examined, because hearing problems can cause some behaviors that might be mistaken for autism. As people with autism grow older they may become independent or able to live within a supportive environment, although many require continued services.

It is not clear what causes autism, but it is likely that both genetics and environment are influential. Researchers have identified a number of genes that are associated with autism, and also have shown that abnormal levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters are involved.

There is no cure for autism. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to aid specific symptoms and can assist the child with autism to improve their behaviors and interactions. Seizures, attention deficit disorder and severe behavioral problems may be treated by physicians with use of medications. Parents of children on the autism spectrum should be careful that their child’s nutritional status is carefully monitored. (Shouldn’t parents be concerned about the nutritional status of all of their children?)

Autism is a frequently misunderstood disorder. Compassion and understanding of all our differences can only improve our society and our aloha.

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Jane Riley, M.S., B.A., C.P.T., is a certified nutritional adviser.

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