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Detected in approximately four to five of every ten thousand births (Powers 10), autism is a widely misunderstood disease. General knowledge of autism, often mistaken, is derived from films such as Rainman. These unrealistic films feature autistic characters who are portrayed as being excessively intelligent. In reality, however, only twenty percent of people diagnosed with autism have average or above-average intelligence ("Autism Primer" 2). Actually, the majority of autistic people suffer varying degrees of mental retardation. A lifelong developmental disability, autism is a disease which affects the way people see, hear, relate, and communicate to others around them. Although the disease is incurable, progressive steps can be taken to help an autistic person function more independently in society.
Autism is categorized as part of a larger group of disabilities called Pervasive Developmental Disorders, or PDD's. Among other PDD's, such as Down syndrome and schizophrenia, autism rates as the fourth most common (Powers 10). General symptoms of PDD's include impaired social interaction and communication skills. Symptoms, however, range on a continuum from mild to severe. While mild behavior is in no way dangerous, severe behavior can be very aggressive and can even result in self-injury.
No single factor has been determined as a cause for autism, but researchers have come up with several theories. One probable cause is an abnormality in gene structure, which is acquired genetically. These genetic conditions affect brain development. Another possibility is that autism is the result of a diet lacking some vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Both of these hypotheses can contribute to neurological abnormalities. The affected areas of the brain include the cerebellum, hippocampus, and amygdala. The neurons in this part of the brain develop to be smaller than normal, and the nerve fibers are stunted.
Two other theories, which have yet to be proven, deal with reactions to something in the diet of either the parent of the child during pregnancy or of the child at an early age. One idea is that an autoimmune disease causes the immune system to attack the brain. In addition, scientists have researched the possibility of the effects of digesting cow meat. Small bacteria, called rogue peptides are produced when people have difficulty digesting cow's meat. These rogue peptides imitate neurotransmitters and hormones. They then flow through the bloodstream to the brain, causing abnormalities in brain development. Still, though, these theories are being further investigated.
The symptoms of autism can be described as a "triad of impairments" ("What" 2). The three areas of development that are affected are social interaction, social communication, and imagination. Autistic children have difficulty developing relationships with people. During the toddler years, children tend to struggle learning to use both verbal, and non-verbal communication. Also, their "play" tactics are abnormal, and they lack in the development of imagination.
Autistic children don't interact normally, and sometimes not even at all, with others. At young ages, they show very little attachment to their parents and often resist being held. Some are so passive that during infancy they must be awakened to be fed. Usually quiet and oblivious to the world around them, autistic people live in a concealed life of confusion.
Another unusual characteristic of an autistic person is in speech development. In fact, forty percent of people diagnosed with the disease, don't speak at all (Powers 4). The remaining sixty percent have echolalia, which is described as a "parrot like repeating of what has been said to them" (Powers 4). Sometimes they will use words in incorrect context, not making sense. When speaking, they have little control over the pitch and volume of their voice and have a tendency to speak in a flat, monotonous voice.
Autistic children also practice unusual or peculiar development of play. Customarily, they show dependence on a "special object" (Wing 11). This object can be anything from a matchbox car to a blanket, but the concept is always the same. Autistic children need to feel comfortable, so they have a need for sameness. Keeping something with them at all times keeps them content. They perform stereotypical behavior, repetitively, such as rocking back and forth in a chair. The purpose or effect of these behaviors is not understood, but these actions are typical to most autistic children. During play, children can become excessively hyper, which brings about severe behavior, often causing self-injury. For all of these reasons, autistic children have trouble interacting with their peers.
Diagnosis of autism entails little more than simply observing the child in his or her natural environment. A doctor would rate a child's skills based on the following criteria: absence or impairment of i
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Lorna, Dr. Powers, Dr. Rimland, Michael D.,
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National Autistic Society., Autism Research Institute, PDD, University of North Carolina, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education,
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New Jersey, New York,
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the disease, mental retardation, confusion, Down syndrome, schizophrenia,
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Kirkman Laboratories, Inc., Rainman, Woodbine House, Inc., Brunner/Mazel Inc.,
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