Autism: Gaining Awareness

Learn about the signs of autism and how autism research and awareness is impacting the disorder.

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For many people over age 35, our first understanding of autism came from Hollywood when Dustin Hoffman played the role of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant living in a mental institution.  Now, with as many as one in 88 children being diagnosed, and that number rising, doctors and parents of children with autism would like the world to have a better understanding of this complex condition.

Autism is a neurobiological disorder marked by impairments in three main categories - social interaction, communication/language, and behaviors that the Autism Program at Yale's Child Study Center calls 'insistence of sameness'.  This can be a repetitive behavior, like hand flapping or rocking, or a resistance to change. Within these three broad areas are multiple characteristics that doctors look for in evaluating children.

The diagnosis of autism has been on the rise in recent years, yet it's not clear whether the incidence of autism itself is on the rise or if there's just increased awareness.  Clinicians' understanding of the full spectrum of autistic disorders is broadening, so as the rate of autism diagnosis is rising, other diagnoses are actually decreasing -- like mental retardation and learning disabilities.  At the same time, more parents are seeking evaluations.  And with more services becoming available, more parents than ever before are pushing to get a diagnosis in order to get help for their children.

"Years ago, parents might not have picked up on certain behaviors," says Dr. Julie Wolf, PhD, an associate research scientist and clinical psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center who works in their Autism Program.  "And kids who today would be considered 'high functioning' might have gone through life struggling."

There is controversy over whether or not increased awareness can account for the dramatic rise in cases.  Many parents and scholars point to environmental factors. However, Dr. Wolf says that as of now, "the research has not borne out an environmental link to autism, and anyone who suggests there might be a link is just speculating."  She also says that one of the biggest myths is the belief that there is a link between autism and immunizations.  Not only is this not true, but the study some doctors cite to draw that conclusion has recently been called into question.

According to the DSM-IV, there must be a total of six (or more) characteristics with at least 2 falling under the social interaction category, and at least one each from both the communication and 'insistence of sameness' categories.  And symptoms must have been present before the age of three.  Further, there must be no evidence of certain other conditions that may be similar.  For full diagnostic criteria, click here.

Dr. Wolf encourages concerned parents to look for these signs:

Under age 3

  • No eye contact
  • No pointing
  • No joint attention (When babies want something, they'll look back and forth between their caregiver and the object. Kids with autism don't do this.)
  • Delay in language development -- not using single words by 18 - 24 months

Ages 3 and over

  • Language delays -- not speaking as much as their peers
  • Repetitive behaviors (this can be developmentally appropriate in children under 3)
  • Trouble drawing child's attention to a particular object
  • Trouble making friends, not showing an interest in peers
  • Not sharing an interest with other people, content to solitary pursuits

She also notes that autism shares a lot of features with other disorders, like ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and the diagnostician must determine what accounts for these characteristics.  The social piece, however, is the distinguishing factor between autism and, say, anxiety or SPD.

Even if you aren't raising a child with autism, chances are very good that a friend, neighbor or member of your community is.  And what's more, your child will likely spend time in a classroom with someone neurologically different than him or herself.  The more we can understand, and accept, the diversity in thinking and behaviors among us, the better off we'll all be.

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Comments (9)
Photo of Carla B.
Carla B.
A very informative article. As a parent of an autistic teenager him and I have come a long way. When he was diagnosed at age 6 I was at a loss for words. It was 2003. I began to ask questions, look up and read everything I could to help educate myself on this different ability. I still do and always will. I was told my son would not write and possibly not walk at the time. Well he does both :). His printing is a little messy but legible. He is doing much better initiating talk and play to others. He still gets confused and shys away but he's accomplished so much. He is 15 1/2 now and him and I give it our all! He has the typicl teenage attitude sometimes. When he's like this I want to rip my hair out (lol). We manage though. I am a caregiver as well and he loves the kids I care for. They have learned and are learning about him daily. You must have unlimited patience and routines. I wouldn't trade anything about this. If I could've had more children like him I would've. It is an adventure everyday for us and will gladly take on whatever is in store for us along our wonderful journey!
For all parents or parent...hang in there, believe in yourself and you will make it. You were chosen to be this special child's or children's parent(s)
For all caregivers...educate educate educate
There will be struggles all along the way but I do know you will not be let down! ENJOY!!!
Posted: July 15, 2012 at 10:17 AM
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Miracle Respite Care
Autism Spectrum Disorders are often hard to detect in children. Once the parents and other support persons are aware and educated about autism, then the greater the outcomes are for all involved.
Posted: May 05, 2011 at 2:42 PM
Photo of Anne P.
Anne P.
Recently I have watched a documentry on reaching children with Autism the Program showed an Indian woman who found a way to comunicate with her son and teach him how to write He has written 6 books so far. The Progam was on PBS and was called "A mother's Courage"
Posted: March 30, 2011 at 11:31 AM
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Rebecca R.
I have worked with autistic children for over 10 years, with varying degrees of autism, and while it is rewarding, it isn't for every caregiver. You need to have a ton of patience, much more than you normally would. You would also need to be prepared to work with the parents should they have speech therapists, physical therapists, etc thatcome to the house and be willing to interact with these other people. so there is definately a lot more involved when working with autistic children.
Posted: March 25, 2011 at 5:39 PM
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Rhonda C.
Very informative, thank you for sharing Deb!
Posted: March 24, 2011 at 1:47 AM
Photo of Annie M.
Annie M.
I have many years of experience working with children with Autism. It was indeed very rewarding an enlightening to be able to witness the transitions and witness progress that the are capable of exhibiting! I hope to return to that field one day soon!
Posted: March 23, 2011 at 2:34 PM
Photo of Tammy M.
Tammy M.
I feel all childcare workers should be trained to look for the signs of this.It helps when children are treated early.They can become more high functioning when diagnosed at an early age.I was aware of the signs and symptoms of Autism and was able to bring it to the attention of the director of the school I taught at and we were able to direct the family to seek help.
Posted: March 22, 2011 at 10:17 PM
Photo of Joy B.
Joy B.
A 2009 study at UC Davis reached a different conclusion on the possibilities of environmental triggers. (see article at link) I could not find any studies on rule outs of environmental causes at Yale, but found they do research on the genetic and molecular origin of the disorder. ~~J. Brown

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=autism-rise-driven-by-environment


California's sevenfold increase in autism cannot be explained by changes in doctors' diagnoses and most likely is due to environmental exposures, University of California scientists reported Thursday.

The scientists who authored the new study advocate a nationwide shift in autism research to focus on potential factors in the environment that babies and fetuses are exposed to, including pesticides, viruses and chemicals in household products.

"It's time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California," said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiology professor at University of California, Davis who led the study.
Posted: March 20, 2011 at 2:38 PM
Photo of Lisa S.
Lisa S.
This is a wonderful article raising awareness for our special children and their needs to coexist in this world. Thank you for posting this!
Posted: March 18, 2011 at 1:18 PM
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