Autism and autism awareness are important topics, in society at large as well as within educational circles. However a great many people may have an incomplete or outdated understanding of what autism is, where it comes from and what it means for parents, teachers and the community. So here's a little background.
What exactly is autism?
Previously, autism was perceived as a collection of randomly collected disorders, or as varying points on a spectrum. Nowadays, however, it’s viewed differently. A diagnosis of autism includes three key disorders:
Impairments in social interaction
Impairments in communication
Restricted interests and repetitive behavior
Those are the three characteristics that lead to a diagnosis of autism. The thing is, it’s now known that huge differences can exist between children with autism, and that is chalked up to the fact that it affects people in unique ways. It can be mild or intense, or include any number of behaviors or symptoms that can range from picky eating to sensory abnormalities to unusual abilities, such as superior memorization and perception. In other words, the effects of autism depend heavily on the individual.
What causes autism?
The days of “we have no idea” are over, but there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the specific details. For instance, there is definitely a genetic component, but the exact mechanism is unknown. There is no “autism gene,” so it is not inherited. It seems likely that certain genetic changes can happen in utero, caused by external influences such as the mother getting a serious infection or doing drugs while pregnant, and these genetic changes can affect brain development. Mothers who have been exposed to serious air pollution run a higher risk of having kids with autism, but researchers have been unable to find a direct, specific cause-and-effect link between any one cause and the creation of autism.
It’s currently believed that autism is the result of problems with neurological development very early on, soon after conception. It seems to be the result of a confluence of events that involve external factors, stress in the womb and genetic risk factors. There is no single source of prevention, but it appears that prioritizing maternal health can reduce the odds of the development of autism.
How soon can autism be diagnosed?
In most cases, parents begin to notice unusual behavior in toddlerhood, but sometimes the symptoms are spotted even earlier. Diagnosis is based entirely on behavior; there is no blood test or scan that can find it. We now know that the sooner intervention is carried out, the better the outcome. However at present there is no “cure” for autism. Sadly, treatment is likely to be very expensive.
What does the future hold for autism?
Young people with autism have long struggled with acceptance in society. Their difficulties in socializing make emotional connections harder to achieve, which makes it easier for them to be dismissed, ignored or judged. The good news is, acceptance is growing as awareness increases. There may yet come a day when autism is viewed as just another exceptionality.