From the early 1900s, autism has referred to a range of neuropsychological conditions. The word “autism,” which has been in use for about 100 years, comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self.” The term describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction — hence, an isolated self. Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, was the first person to use the term. He started using it around 1911 to refer to one group of symptoms of schizophrenia.
In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use the term “autism” to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied. At about the same time, Hans Asperger, a scientist in Germany, identified a similar condition that’s now called Asperger’s syndrome. Autism and schizophrenia remained linked in many researchers’ minds until the 1960s. It was only then that medical professionals began to have a separate understanding of autism in children. From the 1960s through the 1970s, research into treatments for autism focused on medications treatments such as LSD, electric shock, and behavioral change techniques. The latter relied on pain and punishment.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the role of behavioral therapy and the use of highly controlled learning environments emerged as the primary treatments for many forms of autism and related conditions. Currently, the cornerstones of autism therapy are behavioral therapy and language therapy. Other treatments are added as needed.
One symptom common to all types of autism is an inability to easily communicate and interact with others. In fact, some people with autism are unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language or holding a conversation.
Other symptoms linked to autism may include unusual behaviors in any of these areas:
- Interest in objects or specialized information
- Reactions to sensations
- Physical coordination
These symptoms are usually seen early in development. Most children with severe autism are diagnosed by age 3. Some children with milder forms of autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome, may not be diagnosed until later, when their problems with social interaction cause difficulties at school.
Types of Autism:
Over time, psychiatrists have developed a systematic way of describing autism and related conditions. All of these conditions are placed within a group of conditions called pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Within PDDs, the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) category includes the following:
Autistic disorder: Children with autistic disorder cannot use verbal or non-verbal communication to interact effectively with others. Usually, children with autistic disorder have severe delays in learning language. They may have obsessive interest in certain objects or information. They may perform certain behaviors repeatedly. To be diagnosed with autistic disorder, symptoms must have been noted before age 3.
Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS): Children diagnosed with “atypical autism” are included in this group. Children with PDD-NOS have symptoms that do not exactly fit those of autistic disorder or any other ASD. For example, the symptoms may have developed after age 3. Or the symptoms may not be severe enough to be considered an autistic disorder.
Asperger’s syndrome: Children with Asperger’s syndrome may display many of the same symptoms as children with autistic disorder. However, they usually have average or above-average intelligence and initially show normal development of language. They often want to be social with others but don’t know how to go about it. They may not be able to understand others’ emotions. They may not read facial expressions or body language well. Their symptoms may not become apparent until school, when behavior and communication with peers become more important.
Other conditions share symptoms with PDDs and ASDs. These conditions include the following:
Rett Syndrome: Children with this severe, rare condition begin with normal development from birth through about 5 months of age. However, from about 5 to 48 months of age, head circumference development slows. Children lose motor skills and social interaction and language development become impaired.
Childhood disintegrative disorder: Like Rett syndrome, children begin developing normally. However, from about age 2 to age 10, children are increasingly less able to interact and communicate with others. At the same time, they develop repetitive movements and obsessive behaviors and interests. They lose motor skills, too. This usually leads to them becoming disabled. This autism-like condition is the rarest and most severe in autism spectrum disorder.
What Causes Autism?
Autism runs in families. The underlying causes, however, are unknown. Most researchers agree that the causes are likely to be genetic, metabolic or bio-chemical, and neurological. Others also believe that environmental factors may be involved.
How Is Autism Treated?
Treatments for autism vary depending on the needs of the individual. In general, treatments fall into four categories:
- Behavioral and communication therapy
- Medical and dietary therapy
- Occupational and physical therapy
- Complementary therapy (music or art therapy, for example)
Behavioral and Communication Therapies:
The primary treatment for autism includes programs that address several key areas. Those areas are behavior, communication, sensory integration, and social skill development. Addressing these areas requires close coordination between parents, teachers, special education professionals, and mental health professionals.
Medical and Dietary Therapies:
The goal of medication is to make it easier for the person with autism to participate in activities such as learning and behavioral therapy. Drugs used to treat anxiety, attention problems, depression, hyperactivity, and impulsivity may be recommended. These do not “cure” autism, but they can treat underlying dysfunctional symptoms that get in the individual’s way of learning and growing.
There is some evidence that people with autism may have certain deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies don’t cause autism. Supplements, though, may be recommended to improve nutrition. Vitamin B and magnesium are two of the most frequent supplements used for people with autism. However, one can overdose on these vitamins, so mega-vitamins should be avoided.
Diet changes may also help with some symptoms of autism. Food allergies, for example, may make behavior problems worse. Removing the allergen from the diet may improve behavior issues.
These treatments may help increase learning and communications skills in some people with autism. Complementary therapies include music, art, or animal therapy, such as horseback riding or swimming with dolphins.
Future Research and Treatment of Autism:
Researchers, health professionals, parents, and persons with autism all have strong opinions about the direction future autism research should take. Everyone would like to find a cure for autism. However, many feel that finding a cure is unlikely. Instead, scarce resources should be devoted toward helping people with autism find better ways to live with the condition.
No matter what the view toward the future, many techniques and treatments exist now that can help relieve the pain and suffering of autism. These treatments offer many options for improving quality of life of people with autism.