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What is autism exactly?
The word autism is derived from the Greek word autos, or "self," as in autonomous. It has been used to describe individuals who appear to be self-contained or who exist in their own little world, an inner realm seemingly set apart from others. These individuals have been clinically characterized as intentionally withdrawn and lacking in social reciprocity due to their communication difficulties or seeming disregard for social norms, as demonstrated through repetitive actions such as repeated hand flapping or infinitely spinning the wheel of a toy truck instead of rolling the truck along on all four tires.
From a physiological perspective, autism is a common neurological anomaly that may preclude the body from properly receiving signals transmitted by the brain, resulting in misfires and disconnects. Thus, people with autism may be unable to speak (or to speak reliably), to move as they would wish, or carry themselves with grace and complete agility. You've experienced autistic-like symptoms if you've ever transposed or stuttered your words unintentionally, or if you've awakened in the middle of the night to discover your arm is "asleep" from the elbow down and cannot be willed by your brain to move of its own accord.
Autism is a unique and different way of being, a natural variation of the human experience. Those who are autistic are often inherently gentle and exquisitely sensitive. They may perceive the world through a multifaceted prism more complicated and interesting than the view of those who are considered "typical." The autistic experience brings many gifts to appreciate and challenges to master-as will be discussed-as one attempts to assimilate with the world at large.
What are the classic characteristics of autism?
Your child may be exhibiting symptoms of autism if he:
- Seems challenged in communicating through the use of nonverbal communications such as making eye contact or using appropriate facial expressions, body language, and gestures.
- Seems to have difficulty developing friendships with children his own age.
- Doesn't seem to enjoy showing you what he's doing, bringing something he likes to you, or pointing out things he finds interesting.
- Seems to prefer to play alone, or will allow others to play only if they are helpful in abetting a "master plan" he's devised.
- Experiences a delay in talking or doesn't develop speech.
Talks, but seems to find it difficult to begin a conversation or keep a conversation going in ways that would be considered socially appropriate.
- Uses language in unusual ways, such as referring to himself in the third person or repeating certain words or phrases.
- Doesn't engage in make-believe play or play that imitates social models (such as things mommy or daddy does).
- Has a very strong and intense preoccupation with a certain item or topic.
- Engages in specific rituals or routines, and may become upset if they are disrupted.
- May make physical movements that are out of the ordinary, such as constant rocking, flapping his hands, or spinning his body.
Some of these symptoms may present themselves in ways that might be tempting to label as dysfunctional, but they are really your child's attempts to conjoin with the world. You might typically observe these telltale traits in the areas of social interaction, language usage, and the way your child plays, about or before the time he is three years old. The preceding criteria are not diagnostic, and if you have concerns about your child's development, you should follow up with your pediatrician.
Is having autism like having Parkinson's or Alzheimer's?
At present, autism is not associated with other neurological disorders such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, but correlations can be made in the ways autism may manifest similarly (the classic characteristics listed in the preceding question). One significant difference is that autism is not considered a "disease" like these other ailments, and is therefore not degenerative; modern medicine does not yet have the knowledge or expertise to prevent conditions like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's from progressively encumbering those who experience them. It is apt, however, to compare these conditions with autism in that autism involuntarily imposes on one's neurology and hinders speech and movement. Autism's uncommon movement or vocal limitations should not be considered as originating in one's willful volition any more than forgetfulness due to Alzheimer's or trembling due to Parkinson's is willful.
Who "discovered" autism?
In 1801, French physician Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard documented what is regarded as the earliest recorded account of autism in his published work, The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Itard became ward to a "feral" twelve-year-old boy, whom he dubbed Victor, a child plucked from his solitary, nude existence in the forest the previous year. It was believed that Victor, who was without speech, was abandoned by his family and subsisted without any form of human contact. Itard's descriptions of Victor's behavior while in his care were later regarded to correlate with classic symptoms of autism.
But the individual credited with first defining autism is Leo Kanner (18941981), a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine child psychiatrist. In his 1943 paper, "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," Kanner presented his collective observations of children who demonstrated traits now associated with classic characteristics of autism. Kanner's findings created a new understanding of children previously misdiagnosed with schizophrenia or mental retardation. His diagnostic criteria were temporarily referred to as Kanner's syndrome, Kanner's psychosis, or Kanner's autism.
Coincidentally, Hans Asperger (19061980), an Austrian pediatrician, published similar findings in early 1944, just months after Kanner's publication; both men were unaware of each other's research, and yet, curiously, both men used the word autistic to describe their observations (which was originally used to describe the tendency to view life in terms of one's own needs and desires, or someone morbidly self-obsessed). Asperger's work focused on a group of children who appeared to be preoccupied with train timetables, clocks, and other narrow interests, and who experienced difficulty with social interaction such that they were labeled "odd" or "frankly unusual." Though initially termed autistic psychopathy, the collection of traits Asperger documented would eventually become known as Asperger's disorder or Asperger's syndrome. (Please note that the terms psychosis and psychopathy are germane to a specific clinical era, and, to our modern sensibilities, may be perceived as disrespectful.)
It is likely that autism has always been with us, a part of us, in one aspect or another, even though the condition was only identified in the twentieth century.