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A complex condition, autism is the most commonly diagnosed pervasive developmental disorder. Autism is a neurological and developmental disorder that usually appears during the first three years of life. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally, to form relationships and to interact with others. It also typically results in a range of unusual and repetitive behaviors. Autism is classified as a spectrum disorder which means, it can vary from mild to severe. In many cases, individuals with Autism will show uneven levels of intelligence, with highly developed talents in some areas.

The core symptoms that define autism consist of deficits of varying degrees in three areas of development:

  1. defective social or personal relatedness behaviors
  2. language or, more broadly, communication difficulties
  3. play or preferred activities which are characterized by preoccupations having a repetitive or stereotyped quality

Through medical research, the condition known as autism has been considerably broadened to include many childhood developmental disorders. Today the term of pervasive developmental disorder is often applied to identify what is commonly called autism. PDD disorders include: Autistic Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder and PDD not otherwise specified.

The severity of autism varies widely. Experts are beginning to agree that the cause of autism has neurobiological origins, and is not the result of poor parenting (an early misconception). Current research is showing that there are brain differences between the person with autism and his or her typical counterpart and it is the dysfunction of specific nerve networks that appears to be responsible for the behaviors observed in autism. Unfortunately, the precise cause of autism in the majority of children is not yet well understood.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its statistic in 2023 for the prevalence of Autism. It was found that 1 in 36 children are living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups and are four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

The diagnostic standard used to identify Autism is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, fourth edition (DSM-IV). It includes diagnostic criteria grouped into three categories. Individuals with Autism may not necessarily have all the signs and symptoms as described below.

The core symptoms that define Autism consist of deficits of varying degrees in three areas of development:

  1. Impairment in social interaction:
    • Impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors such as lack of eye contact, unable to read facial expressions or respond to social cues and gestures.
    • Failure to interact and to develop appropriate peer relationships.
    • A lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g. lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest).
    • Prefer isolation and appear uninterested in other people, lack of social or emotional reciprocity.
  2.   Impairments in language, or more broadly communication difficulties:
    • Delay in or total lack of, the development of spoken language.
    • In individuals with adequate speech, a marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others.
    • Echolalia (rote repetition of words or phrases) or repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language.
    • Lack of varied, spontaneous make believe or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level.
  3. Impairments in play or preferred activities which are characterized by preoccupations of having a repetitive or stereotyped quality:
    • Display repetitive patterns of behavior such as hand flapping, eye-gazing (starring or looking from the side of the eye), body rocking, grimacing, and vocalizations
    • Encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus.
    • Display apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals.
    • Have an abnormal interaction with toys that may include an extreme focus on parts of objects.
    • Two other popular rating scales that are sometimes used to help diagnose and determine the severity of Autism are the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and the Autism Behavior Checklist.
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