Autism: a factfile

What is autism and its symptoms? 

  • Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (a severe impairment in several areas of development which starts early in childhood and becomes apparent as the child begins to develop).
  • Autistic children appear to be physically healthy but differ from normal children in particular ways. They are aloof, isolated and fail to interact with others normally, usually avoiding eye contact. They often engage in repetitive behaviour such as rocking or spinning an object. They also usually have language difficulties – they could be mute or engage in echolalia, which is the repeating of words or phrases in a meaningless manner. Autistic children also have an obsessive need for sameness and would be panicked or outraged with the onset of a new routine. Occasionally autistic children have a superior talent in a particular area, for example drawing, but the majority of children have an IQ below 70,making them intellectually retarded.
  • The DMS-IV requires delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to the age of three, for a diagnosis of autism to be given: social interaction, language as used in a social communication, symbolic or imaginative play. This has led researchers to look closely at whether these three domains occur together by chance or whether they form a triad of impairments that always occur together and therefore constitute a syndrome,

Who is affected by autism?

  • Autism covers all social classes and geographical areas and is approximately 4 times more likely to be diagnosed in boys than girls.Early population studies indicated a prevalence rate of approximately 4.5 per 10,000, but more recent research suggests that the prevalence is much higher.

 

Where is affected by autism most? (epidemiology) 

  • United States – 1 in 88
  • United Kingdom – 1 in 60
  • Canada – 1 in 51
  • Australia – 1 in 50
  • South Korea – 1 in 38
  • 1 – 2 per 1000 worldwide

When does autism start?

  • Though nobody can declare with certainty exactly when autism begins, covert differences in brain structure and overt symptoms gradually begin to develop after 6 months. Many children show symptoms by 12 to 18 months. However, recent research, a postmortem analysis of child brain tissue, suggests that the disorder actually begins in the womb.

Why does autism occur? (theories)

  • Cold parenting – Kanner (1943) proposed that autism was caused by personalities of the parents of the child, in particular cold, rigid parents (‘the refrigerator mother’). It was suggested that it was as a result of early child-parent interactions that children fail to develop a sense of autonomy which leads to autism.
  • Biological explanations – abnormalities in the brain – the area of the brain damaged appears to correlate with those areas responsible for normal communication, social functioning and play. Post mortem research has shown abnormalities in the frontal lobes, limbic system, brain stem and cerebellum. // Genes – rare mutation.
  • Cognitive  explanations – lack of theory of mind – from an early age we automatically think about mental states (our own and mental states of those around us), but this does not seem to be the case with autistic children. The ability to attribute mental states to others is necessary to predict their behaviour, and so if this mechanism is faulty or fails to develop the child will have problems, // Central coherence deficit – the tendency humans possess to process information for general meaning rather than focusing on individual elements. In normal cognitive systems is a need to form coherence over a wide range of stimuli and a wide range of contexts. According to Frith (1889) it is this capacity for coherence that is diminished in the autistic child. // Impaired executive functioning – the inability of people with autism to conduct higher level processes such as multi tasking and changing plan, associated with localised brain regions.
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