Autism—it used to be considered a rare disorder. We now know that Autistic Spectrum Disorders are very common (just over one case per 100 children). Posters and news media have raised our level of awareness, and many parents worry about the possibility that their children may be affected. But, exactly what is autism?
Autism is what we call a “neurodevelopmental disorder.” This means that a child’s brain is functioning a bit differently then that of the typical child, and that his or her development is not proceeding as expected. Children diagnosed with autism have trouble with many areas of development. There are three key areas that create difficulties for these children with autism.
The first area of difficulty is language. Not only is language delayed, it is also different. Children with autism do not understand the use of language; they have delayed nonverbal communication as well. For example, they do not point to show desire for or interest in an object. When they do talk, they often repeat (“echo”) what they have heard, sometimes reciting entire segments of favorite TV programs.
Children with autism have a very difficult time socially, often showing little interest in their peers. They may show a strong preference in being alone. It is important to note however, that many children with autism do show affection for their parents and can be great cuddlers.
The third area of difficulty lies with toy play. Children with autism do not play with toys in a representational manner (pretend). Instead, they may spend a great deal of time engaging in “stereotypes,” which are behaviors that may appear repetitive and odd to us. For instance, they may wiggle their fingers or wave an object in front of their eyes.
It is important to recognize that every child with autism is different and will show different levels of the above behaviors.
If your child has been diagnosed with autism or you suspect your child may have autism, you are likely to be frightened, angry and overwhelmed. Take a breath. Talk with your doctor, call early intervention and make contacts with local support groups. Therapies often include speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapies and classroom support. Intensive programs do help and many children make substantial progress. Please remember that your child is just that, a CHILD first.