Whether contracted in the early fetal development stage or inherited, autism is a disorder which affects cognitive brain functions thus impeding a person’s ability to communicate effectively. The disorder distorts not only how people perceive sensory information but how the brain processes it as well. Symptoms of autism are generally noticeable to the trained eye before a child’s third birthday but the disorder usually remains undiagnosed until or after that age. The level of autistic severity varies. Some afflicted persons require constant and extensive assistance in virtually all facets of their lives but others have the ability to perform at a much higher level.
Some, with adequate and early therapy, are able to attend regular classes in school and secure avenues of employment afterwards albeit somewhat limited. Though autism is incurable and usually results in social isolation to varying degrees, various forms of treatment have proven to make a decidedly positive impact in the way autistics interact with others. Unfortunately, parents, as a rule, do not have major concerns or seek assistance for their child until obvious signs of deficiencies regarding speech and response patterns are demonstrated compared to others of similar age. This can occur as late as pre-school or kindergarten years. The age at which autism is diagnosed and the degree of comprehensive treatment received are the determining factors in that person’s ability to ultimately function as an independent adult. It has been demonstrated that this disorder of a biological nature can be effectively treated by utilizing a behavioral approach. This concept is examined in addition to the symptoms, tests and treatments for autism.
Description of symptoms
Autism is the most prevalent developmental disorder affecting one in every 166 children (“How Common?”, 2006). Symptoms of the disorder can be generally described as the incapability to adequately interact socially along with a disinterested demeanor. It is an abnormality in the structure of the brain caused by genetic predispositions or from damage occurring during the development phase (Bryson & Smith, 1998). Children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, those infected with rubella while in the womb and those whose mother took drugs known to cause damage to the fetus show symptoms of autism to a greater degree than is typical. “Although the reported association between autism and obstetrical hazard may be due to genetic factors there is evidence that several different causes of toxic or infectious damage to the central nervous system during early development also may contribute to autism” (Williams & Hersh, 1997).
Though some parents, desperate for answers for the cause of their child’s autism, have questioned whether the normal child vaccinations may have been a contributing factor. However, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health and all other prominent national and world health organizations, there exists no correlation between autism and vaccines. A malfunction in the neural circuitry of the brain of those with autism is the likely cause of their perceptions regarding social interaction and lack of adequate cognitive abilities. Studies have yet to produce evidence that demonstrates specific areas of the brain are damaged in persons with autism. On the contrary, several sections of the brain have shown abnormalities during image scans. There is overwhelming evidence, however, for a genetic influence. The identical twin is more likely to have autism if their twin has it but fraternal twins have no more of a predisposition to contract the disorder than would the general public (Butcher, 2003).
The severity of autism varies widely among individuals as does its related symptoms but there are certain aspects relating to social interaction shared by all with the disorder. Avoiding direct eye contact, distinctive body posturing and facial expressions as well as other nonverbal communication deficiencies are a common trait. Autistic children seldom associate with those of their own age-group as well as showing a general disinterest in interacting with any other people. They also do not demonstrate empathy because they lack the understanding of another person’s sorrow or pain. Deficiencies in communication skills can include symptoms such as a delay in speaking development or not being able to speak at all.
About half of those with autism never learn to talk. Of those that do, most have great difficulty focusing and staying within the subject parameters of a conversation (Butcher, 2003). Habitual repetitiveness of words or phrases is a common trait as is the lack of understanding satire or an implied, underlying meaning. A lack of interest in play or other activities is common as is being fixated on a single item. Young autistic children usually focus their concentration on one part of a toy instead of playing with the toy as a whole. Teenagers and adults are frequently mesmerized by such things as license plates, bus schedules and weather patterns, for example. The compulsion for routine such as insisting that they always eat the meat portion of a meal before the salad and must be driven along the same route illustrate this need for sameness and routines. For example, a child with autism may always need to eat bread before salad and insist on driving the same roads to school. Lastly is the well-recognized rocking back and forth behavior commonly observed in those with autism (Volkmar, 2000).
Autism and other neurological disorders are defined by characteristics of behavior and are commonly considered to be biological in origin and not caused by improper parenting or by varying social situations a young child may have experienced. The precise fundamental neurological causes have not been identified but remain the source of the condition. Though differing theories have been postulated, none have stood up to intense scientific scrutiny and analysis. Many variables are present when attempting to specifically define the source although autism unquestionably does not originate from how a child is nurtured. Because of many possible causes and varying severities of the disorder, there is no one definitive type of treatment. However, there are strategies that have proven to help all autistic children to enhance overall physical and cognitive functions and to realize their potential. For example, “behavioral training and management uses positive reinforcement, self-help, and social skills training to improve behavior and communication” (Committee on Children with Disabilities, 2001). Also included are specialized treatments to improve speech and physical deficiencies. Medication to treat hyperactivity, depression and/or compulsive behaviors are commonly prescribed as well which put the child in state of mind more susceptible to learning modified behaviors (Butcher, 2003).
The objective of treatment is to enhance the child’s language and social development and to curb behaviors which impede the child’s learning capabilities. A cure is not possible because autism is a chronic cognitive disorder, its disabling effects last for a lifetime. Learning programs adapted to the autistic child’s specific needs and abilities if applied early on in their life greatly increases their ability to learn language skills and helps to increase their ability to learn other aspects of communication as well. Well-structured education curriculums assist autistic children to attain social skills in addition to learning to attend to their own needs. Studies over the past decade have consistently demonstrated encouraging outcomes even for children of a very young age. Three decades of research has demonstrated the effectiveness of functional behavioral techniques which has generally proved to reduce improper social behavior patterns and enhance communication skills. A study of intervention methods was conducted on autistic children who were treated with extensive behavior modification therapy for two years as compared to a control group that was provided no such training. “Follow-up of the experimental group in first grade, in late childhood, and in adolescence found that nearly half the experimental group but almost none of the children in the matched control group were able to participate in regular schooling” (Lovaas, 1987).
Autistic children do not normally demonstratively share feelings of affection. They shy away from hugs and show little if any noticeable response when experiencing pleasure. This emotional disconnection, or more precisely, the inability to show appropriate emotions, is the most difficult aspect of this affliction for parents. The use of massage therapy has proved beneficial for autistic children who typically dislike being touched. Following massage techniques a lesser degree of autistic mannerisms are discernable. Studies have shown that autistic children become more attentive, socially aware, are less averse to touch and not as likely to withdraw after receiving a massage treatment from their parents. Massage therapy offers the nurturing all children crave and is perceived by the autistic child as non-threatening. “Given that autistic children have been reported to be opposed to physical contact, it is interesting that many massage therapists, and parents, are finding great success in the use of massage therapy with autistic children” (Allen, 2007).
Well-designed and personalized programs targeted to manage an autistic person’s biological disorder have proven to take full advantage of their learning potential thus lessening the effects of autism. This affliction that causes anti-social actions is a product of nature and the effects can be greatly reduced by nurturing its behavioral aspects. Biological causes and environmental solutions function in an interdependent fashion. Environmental stimulation influences the maturation process of all people, autistic persons are no exception. When people seldom interact with others, they cannot effectively learn and withdraw from social activities. Those that focus too much of their concentration on the same type of activity or thing are not developing and learning at an optimum rate. People who tend to do this the majority of the time are labeled as autistic. Interaction is the founding principle of the behavioral approach to teaching autistic students: “… they need specially prepared programs that will teach them to learn from their parents, siblings, peers and others” (Rutter, 1997).
Treatment of autistic children
The most important factor in the treatment of autistic children and ensuring they reach their optimum potential is identifying the developmental disorder as early as possible. The behaviors and symptoms of autism are many, varied and are capable of intertwining in a countless number of ways including different levels of severity. Additionally, an individual’s behaviors and symptoms frequently change with time. Autistic children are most responsive to treatment that is specialized, amply structured and custom tailored to suit the individual’s needs. Treatment programs that focus on assisting parents in improving behavioral, social, adaptive and communicative skills collectively in a positive, customized learning environment will ensure that the autistic child will be able to make the most out of their life.
Allen, Tina August. (2007) “Massage Therapy for Children with Autism Healing Hands” International Association of Infant Massage. Web.
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Butcher James N. (2003) “Abnormal Psychology” 13th Ed. Allyn & Bacon, Incorporated, Old Tappan, New Jersey.
Committee on Children with Disabilities. (2001). “Technical Report: The Pediatrician’s Role in the Diagnosis and Management of Autistic Spectrum Disorder in Children. Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics Vol. 107, N. 5, pp. 1–18.
“How Common are Autism Spectrum Disorders?” (2006). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web.
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Rutter, M. L. (1997). “Nature-Nurture Integration – The Example of Antisocial Behavior.” American Psychologist. Vol. 52, pp. 390-398.
Volkmar FR & Klin A. (2000). “Pervasive Developmental Disorders.” Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, (Eds.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Williams, Vol. 2, pp. 2659–2678.
Williams, P. G. & Hersh, J. H. (1997). “A Male with Fetal Valproate Syndrome and Autism.” Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. Vol. 39, pp. 632–634.