Autism or PPD (pervasive developmental disorder) is defined by the Columbia encyclopedia as a rare neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by the inability to relate to and perceive the environment in a realistic manner. The onset of the disorder is in infancy or early childhood, generally before the age of thirty months, and males are affected four times as often as females. Symptoms include impairment in social interaction, fixation on inanimate objects, inability to communicate normally, and resistance to changes in daily routine. Diagnosing Autism is based on four characteristics: difficulty with language, abnormal responses to sensory stimuli, resistance to change, and difficulty with social interaction. Other characteristics of autism may include making the same repetitive motion for hours, repeating a sound or phrase, inability to hold a conversation, practicing unusual play patterns, and extreme sensitivity to sound and touch.
Autistics can exhibit any combination of these characteristics to any degree. That is why autism is referred to as a spectrum” disorder. At one end of the disorder, a child may have some symptoms, while at the opposite end, a child may have multiple symptoms with many areas in between. Children who display few symptoms may be characterized as “mildly autistic”. The cause of autism remains unclear, although most neurological studies seem to indicate a dysfunction in the brain as a possible reason. Autism has been found in children with brain abnormalities such as congenital rubella syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and tuberous sclerosis.
Autism can also be present in genetic syndromes such as fragile X syndrome and phenylketonuria. Some research has shown that there may be an autism gene, or two genes working together. These genes are thought to be on the seventh and thirteenth chromosome. The disorder may be hereditary as shown by twin studies that cite a substantially higher rate in identical twins – so much so that heritability is over 90%,” says Joseph Piven.
In a Harvard Mental Health letter, statistics show that the rate of autism and mild retardation in siblings and fraternal twins of autistics is 50-100 times higher than average. In identical twins, the rate is 65% to 90%. In 1980, it was found that more than half of the children in 11 families with a father diagnosed with autism were also autistic. When tested, apparently normal parents of autistic children had undiagnosed mild symptoms of autism. Early signs of autism may appear in the first months of life. Autistic infants tend to avoid touch and become limp or stiff when picked up.
Autistic children do not reach maturation as fast as normal children. A normal child will point to objects or smile when seeing their mother before the end of their first year, but children with autism develop this behavior much later. These symptoms may go unnoticed by parents or doctors in infancy, but by the age of two to three, it is clear that something is wrong. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that one in 500 children in America suffer from autism. Autistic children are unable to recognize themselves or remember things that they have just done. For example, if an autistic child were to show someone a toy of theirs, they would forget they have just shown it and show the toy repeatedly as if they have never presented it before.
They may examine a simple toy or electronic device for hours without losing interest or rock back and forth in a particular spot for an entire afternoon. The repetition of little things seems to be a grand achievement for these children. When diagnosing or assessing autism, the child’s history is taken into consideration. For instance, whether or not the family has autism in any other branches of its tree can help determine whether a child may or may not have autism. The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that aspects of the assessment will vary depending on the child’s age, history, and previous evaluations.
The history should include the pregnancy and development of the child, marking milestones such as communication and motor skills (e.g. child’s first words or steps) that may be unusual. Doctors often discuss the medical history, including the possibility of seizures, hearing and visual impairments, and other conditions or syndromes such as fragile X syndrome. This is because there is currently no specific laboratory test for autism. These studies and discussions aid in the search for a diagnosis. A test for fragile X syndrome may be given.