Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) affect an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States. Autism spectrum disorders in children are more common than AIDs, diabetes and cancer combined. The Autism Society of Canada reports that "Autism is the most common neurological disorder affecting children today".
Whether the constant increase over the last 20 years is related to changing diagnostic criteria, increasing awareness or a true increase, these numbers are staggering. Moreover, it is becoming more common for students with ASD to receive their education in their community schools and appropriate grade classrooms.
Image credit: Health Resources: Children Neurological Disorders, https://www.health-res.com/children-disorders-neurological
What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is a neurological disorder which affects the way the brain processes and uses information. Autism spectrum disorders in children are usually categorized into three main types:
- Autistic Disorder or Classic Autism
- Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
- Aspgerger's Syndrome
If you consider ASD on a continuum, at one end you may see children with limited language skills, dependent for feeding, dressing, toileting and other basic skills; this is autistic disorder. At the opposite end, you may see individuals who struggle with specific school tasks or social skills but function with ease in many areas; this is Asperger's syndrome. The third category includes children who meet some, but not all of the diagnostic criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger's syndrome.
The causes of autism spectrum disorders remain elusive but researchers are investigating a number of areas including genetics, neurology and environmental factors. Twin studies lend support to a genetic contribution. The CDC states, "Among identical twins, if one child has an ASD, then the other will be affected about 60-96% of the time".
Autism spectrum disorders in children manifest themselves in three main areas:
- Language and Communication
- Social Interaction
- Restrictive and Repetitive Patterns of Behavior
Youngsters may not be able to follow conversations or communicate their needs effectively. Friendships can be hard to navigate so children with ASD are often isolated or bullied. They may also become fixated on activities or topics of interest and resistant to change. Children with ASD may also be sensitive (over- or under-) to sensory input and have additional anxiety issues. Challenging behaviour might surface as a result of these difficulties but it is not an inherent characteristic of the disability.
Many famous and accomplished people may have had autism or Asperger's syndrome. This belief is based in part on their odd behaviors, difficulty with conversational skills and trouble making friends. Intricate Minds, a video about Asperger's syndrome mentions several people that you might know:
- Thomas Jefferson was known to greet foreign dignitaries in his bedroom slippers, with a pet mockingbird on his shoulder
- Amadeus Mozart had a hard time carrying on a conversation and often made socially inappropriate remarks
- Isaac Newton lectured even when his classroom was empty
- Albert Einstein had very few friends as a child and was known to have echolalic speech at seven years old
We can't say for sure if these individuals actually had an autism spectrum disorder but it is safe to say that some children with ASDs will go on to make important contributions to our society.
Autism spectrum disorders in children have a lifelong and pervasive impact. Currently there is no cure. Many individuals, however, benefit from early intervention and individualized education. Intensive therapies can help teach some children basic daily living and learning skills. Capitalizing on areas of strength and special interests can help other students learn valuable academic, social and career-related skills.
Children with ASDs may attend private centres, receive home-based therapies or be taught in their neighborhood school. Classes may serve other students with autism or other disabilities or autistic children may be included in the classroom with their same-age neurotypical peers.
Educational and treatment options may vary according to region and the choices can be overwhelming for families. Often, multi-disciplinary teams, including school staff and community agencies are available to help parents make these important decisions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html, 2011.
Autism Society Canada, https://www.autismsocietycanada.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17&Itemid=51&lang=en.
Intricate Minds II: Understanding Elementary School Classmates with Asperger Syndrome. DVD. Coulter Video. 2006.
Autism Speaks: Facts About Autism, https://www.autismspeaks.org/whatisit/facts.php