Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Exploring the Spectrum, Part 2: Classical Autism

Autism is a spectrum, a variety of disorders with varying severity and behaviours presented by it.  Perhaps the best known one to the general population is what is seen as "classical" autism, also called infantile autism.  Classical autism is often the most severe and obvious form of the disorder.  It is the one seen most often in the media and thought of when the word "autism" is mentioned.

Individuals with classical autism can be identified by 18 months of age.  They usually will present troubling signs to their parents or caregivers - no talking, babbling or phrases, no gesturing, seeming uninterested in other people and stiffening or becoming distressed when picked up.  Some even lose social or language skills, though this is more often seen in another form of the disorder which will be discussed in a later post.

There is a definite genetic component to all forms of autism.  Someone with a parent or sibling who is autistic has an elevated chance of also being autistic.  Autism also comes with a veritable buffet of potential co-morbid disorders such as seizures, gastrointenstinal problems, immune disorders, fragile X syndrome and mental retardation.

A child or adult with autism usually lacks most social or communication skills.  Some can speak or learn to speak, others remain mostly mute for their entire lives.  They have very limited eye contact and generally dislike physical contact.  These people have been said be locked in their own heads.  Usually they are extremely set in their own routines and have little ability to change them.  Some are seen as being unable to feel pain or sense danger.

An obvious trait is the stimming, which can take many forms, ranging from benign, such as handflapping, leg wiggling and jumping, to the disturbing or dangerous, like biting oneself or banging their head against things.

There is no known cure for autism, but early intervention is seen as the best way to assure a better future for these individuals.  Intense attention in special education programs and various forms of therapy have shown the best results.  Most individuals with classical autism will never live on their own, but some may be able to hold jobs.

One of the most misconceived parts of the disorder is the idea of autistic savants.  Movies like Rain Man have made the idea that all autistic people are actually geniuses very popular.  Savantism is actually another developmental disorder, of which 50% of those with it are autistic and 50% have another form of disorder such as mental retardation.  1 in 10 people with an ASD may have savant-like skills.

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