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Autism can be defined as a severe disorder of communication and behavior which can develop anywhere from birth to about thirty months. Autism is a severely incapacitating, bio-neurologically caused, life-long developmental disability that has been found throughout the world in families of all racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds. This disorder impairs the way sensory input is assimilated, causing problems in communication, social behavior and irregularity in learning.
There is a varied list of general and specific symptoms and behaviors that have been observed in autistic individuals. However, not every autistic person evidences every symptom, nor is the severity of frequency exhibited the same. Some of the major affected areas are: delay in social, physical and cognitive skills, immature patterns of speech, lack of speech or echolalia, limited understanding of ideas, use of words without the attachment of their usual meaning, abnormal responses to sensations and abnormal ways of relating to people, objects and events. Some specific abnormalities are: difficulty in social interaction, resists learning, shows lack of fear of real dangers, resists change in routine, unreceptive to physical attention, hyperactivity, lack of eye contact, over attachment to objects, spinning objects, hand flapping, self-abusiveness, rocking, etc.
Although autism was identified almost forty years ago, it is only within the past twenty years that any significant research has been done. Autism is now known to be a developmental disorder, but in earlier times was incorrectly viewed as a psychiatric disorder and therefore misdiagnosed as childhood schizophrenia. The effect of incorrect labeling is inappropriate placements and non-prescriptive treatment.
Another widely advocated belief was that autism was a result of extremely cold, distant, rejecting and overly intellectual parenting. The child's extreme withdrawal was viewed as a refusal to engage in social or physical contact rather than an inability. Therefore, the assumption was that the familial environment being hostile was the cause of the child's refusal to become engaged. Professionals labeled this concept " the refrigerator mother." Needless to say, this view caused much anxiety and pain for the parents of the autistic and further led to their treatment along with their child. Naturally the treatment was also psychoanalytic in its focus, attempting to have mothers admit to their subconscious "rejection" of their child.
Today, much enlightened thinking, coupled with scientific research has disproved this notion. The evidence today suggests that autism results from certain subtle types of brain damage, which can be produced by a number of different factors including genetics. These factors affect cognitive functioning, and help explain why a high percentage of these children are also mentally retarded. Many researchers have suggested the involvement of the cerebrum. Computerized tomography brain scans have found gross abnormalities in 26 percent of the studied cases.
Some researchers have also found a variety of cerebral abnormalities. They have found that autistic children showed significant developmental delays in this area. They found that reverse asymmetry of the two cerebral hemispheres, specifically in the parietal occipital areas, was significantly more prevalent among autistic patients than non-autistic patients. They felt that since this area of the cerebrum is near the posterior language zone, this would account for the relative strength of visual-spatial capacities as compared with language capacities in autistic children.
The comparative strength of information-processing capacity in the two hemispheres also showed that autistic children are predominantly right-hemisphere processors. Experiments involving listening preferences of autistic and normal subjects showed that when given a choice between verbal and musical material, the autistic children preferred music, while normal children showed no preference. Secondly, autistic children listened to both types of material predominantly with the left ear. Normal subjects showed a distinction between the types of material they were given to process in that they tended to listen to music primarily with the left ear, and verbal material with the right ear. This suggests more of a reliance on the right hemisphere to process information, even when the left hemisphere would normally be more efficient for such processing. This may also explain the autistic child's difficulty in connecting present to past experiences. The left hemisphere is better able to relate stimuli to past experience of a subject, while the right is more able to process stimuli that are not easily identifiable or referable. Therefore, if autistic children are processing information with the right hemisphere alone, it would follow, that the only information such a child
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