Understanding Autism

Knowing the signs and pursuing early treatment tailored to your child's specific needs is key to helping him shoot for the stars.



With autism claiming countless headlines in the media, there isn't a parent today who hasn't had questions or concerns about this complex disorder. You've probably heard that there has been a rapid increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism and that certain vaccines could be a potential cause. You may even know or have a child who has been diagnosed with the disorder. Despite the amount of coverage that autism has received, it remains a mysterious and often difficult-to-understand disorder. 

No doubt, a diagnosis of autism can be very upsetting; but for many parents it is a relief to have a name for their child's symptoms. The positive news is that autism is treatable, especially if caught early. There is no telling how much can be accomplished with early intervention and treatment. 

Defining Autism
Autism is a developmental disorder that involves many challenges — typically delays and impairment in social skills, language, and other behavior. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that there is a broad range of such symptoms.

There is a core set of symptoms associated with autism, but it's important to note that these symptoms can be seen in children without autism or in children who might have other types of developmental challenges. Each symptom on its own should not be considered a sign of autism. The core set of symptoms includes:

  • Trouble forming relationships
  • Difficulty understanding or responding to emotional signals from others
  • Challenges using language creatively and receptively
  • Self-absorption (the child seems to be in his own world, not tuned in to stimuli and people around him)
  • Repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior, such as staring at a fan
  • Repeating words over and over again
  • Repetitive motor movements, such as hand flapping.

What Causes Autism?
The exact cause of this condition is unknown. Researchers are looking at potential genetic and environmental causes. Experts believe that autism may be a genetically based disorder. And while there is no general consensus on what environmental factors might be at play, two significant factors being studied include vaccines containing mercury and various forms of brain trauma. 

We're also trying to figure out why there has been such a large increase in autism cases over the past 10 to 20 years. According to the Autism Research Center, the rate of autism has increased enormously throughout the world since the early 1990s. There are lots of debates about why: Some say it's due to toxic chemicals, but there's no compelling evidence yet. Others think there is a good chance that the children and disorder haven't changed as much as our definitions and classifications. Children who might have been labeled as "retarded" or "brain injured" a generation ago are now said to be on the autistic spectrum. 

In all likelihood, what we call "autism" is an umbrella term for a number of different kinds of mental problems, but they all share some common symptoms — just as a fever might be a sign of many different kinds of illnesses. Similarly, problems with relating, communicating, and thinking may be the common symptoms of many different fundamental problems. This is where our research is taking us now. The bottom line is that there is lots of research going on, but there are no conclusive answers. 

Treating Autism Individually
There are many different approaches to treating autism, and there is a strong movement to treat these children with behavioral methods, including rewarding behaviors we want to see develop, such as more interactions with others and staying tuned in. 

We believe that to help any particular child, you have to know how he is unique. While the common problem of autism lies in relating to and communicating with others, the behavior patterns of each child can be quite different. Some children are overreactive to touch and sound, for example, while others are underreactive to the same things. The overreactive child needs extra soothing; the underreactive child needs very energetic and animated interaction. Similarly, some children with this diagnosis have very good memories of the things they've heard, while others have very poor auditory memories. In fact, some children are not easily able to remember anything that's been said to them. 

Helping a child requires meeting him at his level.The DIR (Development, Individual Difference, and Relationship-Based) Floortime model was developed to help parents and teachers do this. It addresses a child's individual differences by encouraging you to look at:

  • The way your child takes in, processes, and understands new experiences
  • The way he reacts to things, such as touch and sound
  • The way he comprehends visual experience
  • The way he plans actions
  • His level of handling relationships

For example, if your child is just beginning to learn how to engage and interact with others, he may sometimes be very self-absorbed and wander the room aimlessly. You'll need to persuade him to want to relate to others. He may be occupied, for example, with a little car he likes to hold. You might take the car in his hand and put it on his head, as a playful way of enticing him into interacting with you. If he is also very underreactive to touch and sound, has low muscle tone, and is very passive, you might have to use a higher energy level and be very animated to grab his attention. As you engage him, you start helping him move up the developmental ladder. 

When working with an unresponsive child, a strategy might be to have two cookies — one chocolate chip (that you know he likes) and one oatmeal (that you know he doesn't like). Hold up each one and say, "Which one do you want, the chocolate chip cookie or the oatmeal cookie?" The goal is to have him answer, "I want the chocolate chip." It may take many sessions, but using his interests to entice him to relate to you can help him use language meaningfully. 

How Your Child's Teacher Can Help
Your child's school environment is also important to consider. The general goal at school is for the teacher to create learning settings tailored to the needs of your child. Forming a strong partnership and sharing information with your child's teacher is key. Accomplishing this goal may require having an aide to provide extra help in a preschool or kindergarten program. Other times, you might volunteer in the classroom. It's very hard to provide the necessary individualized work if there's only one teacher for many children. Confer with your child's teacher and school director to be sure your child's teacher has enough support. 

One way your child's teacher can help your child is to foster learning interactions between your child and one or more other children who are functioning without any challenges or special needs. Other children can help to lure your child into interaction with games. For example, the teacher can ask a child to hold the little toy car, so that your child takes it from him rather than her. She might also invite the children to interact during adult-mediated pretend play. She can ask things, such as "I'll bet you can't get Johnny to ask you for that little car." She can model the behavior so the non-autistic child will try to entice your child into more interaction and more creative use of language. Very often, children without special needs become very interested in the children with special needs, and get much satisfaction from being helpful. 

Following Directions
Attention and Focus
Self Control
Learning Differences & Special Needs
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Parent and Teacher Communication
Special Needs
Learning and Cognitive Development