Autism is a development disorder that typically produces characteristic and recognizable symptoms in early childhood. The causes for autism are still not well understood. Autism has been ascribed to high levels of mercury in the system, digestive conditions, diet, trauma inside the womb or during childbirth, and chemicals present in childhood vaccines. While some of these possible causes have been eliminated from consideration, the genetic link appears to be valid since identical twins are much more likely to both suffer from autism or related developmental disorders than are fraternal twins, brothers and sisters, or unrelated children.
Early signs of autism
Many parents notice the first signs of autistic behavior at about eighteen months, when a child typically begins to explore his or her environment and to communicate with others. Autistic children may show signs of speech delay or odd and difficult to understand speech patterns. Eye contact is often minimal and the child may appear shy not only to strangers but also to members of the immediate family; some babies fail to respond to their name or to look at objects when others point to them. Autistic children may also appear to lack empathy and often respond inappropriately to emotional cues given by other children or adults. Most autistic children are extremely literal from a very early age and appear to find it difficult or impossible to engage in imaginative play with other children.
Delays in speech and language development are common symptoms of autism. Autistic children tend to learn to speak at a slower rate than other children and may use gestures or invent nonsense words in order to express themselves. Babies may fail to engage in babbling in response to adult questions and may skip the early stages of speech development altogether. Toddlers and older children appear to be uncomfortable or clearly unable to initiate conversations with others, while repeating words and phrases in a random way when engaged in conversation. Some autistic children are very playful in their use of language, however, and may make up rhymes to amuse themselves.
Autistic children generally have difficulty interacting normally with their peers. Because they tend not to pick up on non-verbal cues, they often do not understand the emotional context of a conversation. Not making or maintaining eye contact produces an impression of shyness, creating more obstacles to successful social interaction. Because children with autism tend not to respond with behavior that is the social norm, often appearing cold or detached from the feelings and emotional reactions of others, they may be teased or avoided by other children, augmenting their withdrawal from social situations.
As most autistic children perceive the world around them quite literally, playacting, dress-up and imaginative play are difficult if not impossible for them to understand. Children with autism typically are more concerned with concrete realities and facts than in imagining what appears to them to be nonsensical or nonexistent.
There is no cure for autism, but therapies exist to help children adjust more readily to social situations. Children with autism are unlikely to grow up to be social butterflies, but they can live full and productive lives by emphasizing their strengths in critical thinking and analysis while downplaying the areas in which they experience difficulties. Parents can help by discussing their concerns with the child’s pediatrician at the first sign of these symptoms, which helps autistic children get the therapies and treatments they need to succeed academically and in later life.