Frequently Asked Questions about Autism

  • What is Autism?

    Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), usually referred to as "Autism", is a brain disorder that typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment. It is a life-long developmental disorder that that affects the individual's ability to understand what they see, hear, see, touch, and taste. Although the range and intensity of the disability varies greatly, all individuals affected by it have difficulties communicating, learning and developing social skills. People with Autism have to work to learn normal patterns of speech and communication, and how to appropriately relate to people, objects, and events.

    • Communication - Verbal and non-verbal
    • Social interactions
    • Sensory Issues
    • Learning in "normal" settings
    • Repetitive behaviours
    • Marked restriction of activities and interests

    People with autism usually find it hard to communicate with others in a typical way and have difficulty understanding social conventions. As a result, individuals with autism may respond in unusual ways to everyday situations and changing environments. Despite some differences, people with ASD tend to share certain social, communication, motor, and sensory problems that affect behaviour in predictable ways, the severity of these characteristics varies among affected individuals but typically include the following:

    • Communication delays e.g. language development. If language does develop, it usually delayed and includes peculiar speech patterns or the use of words without attachment to their normal meaning. Some individuals with autism repeat or "echo" verbal utterances made others - this is called echolalia. Those individuals who are able to use language effectively may still use unusual metaphors or speak in a formal and monotone voice.
    • Social relationships issues. Individuals with autism often have difficulty interacting with peers. The autistic child often avoids eye contact, resists being picked up, and can seem distant or "tuned out", s/he will tend to engage in parallel play rather than interactive play and can lack the ability to play imaginatively. The affected individual may have difficulty understanding other people's feelings. These difficulties can hinder the development of friendships.
    • Inconsistent Patterns of sensory responses. The child who has autism at times may appear to be deaf and fail to respond to words or other sounds. At other times, the same child may be extremely distressed by an everyday noise such as a vacuum cleaner, school bell or a dog's barking. The child also may show an apparent insensitivity to pain and a lack of responsiveness to cold or heat, or may over-react to any of these.
    • Ability to Learn. Individuals with ASD may have "splinter" skills - scattered things done quite well in relation to overall functioning - such as drawing, music, math, calendars, computers, mechanical ability such as working with complex video/audio equipment or memorization of facts with no regard to importance (or lack of it). Many autistic persons test as cognitively delayed are non verbal or have serious language delays.
    • Repetitive movements. People with autism may have ritualistic actions that they repeat over and over again, such as spinning, balancing, rocking, staring, finger flapping, hand flicking, twisting, tip toe walking, and/or hitting self, etc. This individual can be aggressive towards others; obsessive about patterns; repetitive; demand strict routines. They may display repetition by following the same route, the same order of dressing, or the same schedule everyday, etc. If changes occur in these routines, the preoccupied child or adult usually becomes very distressed.
    • Marked restriction of activity and interests. People with ASDs often have a restricted pattern of interests and may have seemingly odd habits: they may talk about or focus obsessively on only one thing, idea, activity, or person. Sometimes these habits or interests are unusual or socially inappropriate.
  • How is Autism diagnosed?

    To date, no biological diagnostic tests exist that detect autism. But scientists are hopeful that advanced imaging techniques and differences in blood levels of proteins in autistic versus normal children may have implications for diagnosis. Already, improved diagnostic procedures have allowed clinicians to diagnose children at a younger age.

    Formal diagnosis involves parental input and structured and systematic screening instruments, such as the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) and the Autism Behavioral Checklist (ABC) for older children. The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and the Autism Diagnostic Inventory-Revised (ADI-R) are used, as well. These tools measure the prevalence of symptoms. Symptoms may be present from birth, or may occur after months of normal development. However, no two children with these disorders behave the same way. Children as young as 18 months may be diagnosed, but have different clinical features than an older child with autism.

    Between 18 months and 36 months, symptoms may include:

    • Limited pretend play
    • Lack of pointing to demonstrate interest
    • Reduced gaze following
    • Less frequent demonstration of repetitive, stereotypic behaviors
    • In children with autism between 2 years and 3 years of age, the following features may be observed:
    • Communication difficulties
    • Socialization deficits with caregivers
    • Perceptual sensitivity
    • Other difficult behaviors
  • How is ASD treated?

    There is no one treatment for ASDs; however, it is widely accepted that the earliest interventions allow the best outcomes.  Treatments generally address both cognitive and behavioral functioning. They may include a combination of medications (for challenging behaviors), behavioral therapy, psycho-education, family support groups, educational interventions, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and specialized training to develop and improve acquisition of necessary skills.

    Research has found that a newer class of atypical antipsychotic medications may better treat the serious behavioral disturbances in children with autism who are between 5 and 17 years old. Applied behavioral analysis may be an effective adjunctive treatment in reinforcing desirable and reducing undesirable behaviors. Other work focuses on improving social communication in children with autism. Some have found that structured multidisciplinary behavioral programs are more successful. Parental involvement, a predictable schedule, regular behavior reinforcement and active engagement of attention in highly structured activities to enhance a strength or ability may all contribute to creating an effective treatment program.