Mr. Bobby Porter MA, Behavioral Health South University of Georgia College of Arts & Sciences Science in Psychology

Autism is a Complex Developmental Disability

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. This is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. 

Autism is four more times prevalent in boys than girls. Autism shows no racial, ethnic or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence. Autism and its associated behaviors have been estimated to occur in as many and one in 500 individuals. In this essay, I will discuss the signs and symptoms of autism, types of autism, the diagnosis of autism and studies done on autism. 


Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. This disorder makes it hard for them to relate to the outside world. It is hard for them to communicate with others. 


Aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present in some cases. They may exhibit repeated body movement, such as hand flapping or rocking, unusual responses to people or attachments to objects and resistance to changes in routines. They possibly will experience sensitivities in the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.


Children will be within the pervasive development until the ages of 24-30 months, when parents may notice delays in language, play or social interaction. If any of these symptoms occur by themselves, which would not result in a diagnosis of autism. Autism is a combination of several developmental challenges. 


Symptoms of autism

There are many symptoms of autism. They include: extreme difficulty in learning language, inappropriate response to people, avoiding eye contact, resisting being picked up or cuddled, uncooperative play with other children, extreme hyperactivity and many others. There are five major areas in children highly affected by autism. They are communication, social interaction, sensory impairment, play and behavior. 


Every person with autism has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some autistic people mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and communication and greater challenges with social interactions. The abilities of an autistic child may fluctuate from day to day due to difficulties in processing, concentration or anxiety. 


They may show evidence of learning one day, but not the next. Learning can be affected by external stimuli and anxiety. They may have average or above average verbal, memory or spatial skills but find it difficult to be imaginative or join in activities with others. Individuals with more severe challenges may require intensive support to manage basic tasks and needs of day to day living. 


Contrary to popular belief, many individuals with autism make eye contact, show affection, smile, laugh, and demonstrate a variety of other emotions, although in varying degrees. Like others, they respond to environment with both negative and positive ways. Autism may affect their range of responses and make it more difficult to control how their bodies and minds react. Sometimes motor, visual, and/or processing problems make it difficult to maintain eye contact with others. Some autistic people use peripheral vision rather than looking directly at others. Sometimes the closeness or touch of others may be painful, resulting in withdrawal. 


Disorders grouped under Autism

Several related disorders are grouped under? Persuasive Developmental Disorder? Or PDD- a general category of disorders, which are characterized by severe and persuasive impairment in several areas of development. A PDD is diagnosed when a specified number of characteristics are present. 


Diagnostic evaluations are based on the presence of specified behaviors indicated by observation and through parent consultation, and should be made by a highly trained team. Thus, when professionals or parents are referring to different types of autism, often they are distinguishing autism from one of the other persuasive developmental disorders. 


Individuals who fall under the PDD category exhibit commonalities in communication and social deficits, but differ in severity. The five different diagnoses are: Autistic Disorder, Aspergers Disorder, Persuasive Developmental Disorder, Rett’s Disorder and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. 


Autistic Disorder includes impairments in social interaction, communication and imaginative play prior to age three. An autistic child will also have stereotyped behaviors, interests and activities. 

Aspergers Disorder is characterized by social impairments in social interactions and the presence of restricted interests and activities with no clinically significant general delay in language, and testing in a range of average intelligence. 


A Persuasive Developmental Disorder-Not otherwise specified (commonly referred to as atypical autism) a diagnosis may be made when a child does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis, but there is a severe and persuasive impairment in specified behaviors. 


Rett’s Disorder is a progressive disorder, which has occurred only in girls. It includes a period of normal development and then a loss of previously acquired skills, loss of purposeful use of the hands replaced with repetitive hand movements beginning at the ages of one to four years. 

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is characterized by normal development for at least the first two years, showing significant loss of previously acquired skills. 


Answer to what causes autism

Researchers have devoted a considerable time and energy into finding the answer to what causes autism. Medical researchers have explored numerous explanations for the various forms of autism. Although a specific cause is not known, current research links autism to biological or neurological differences in the brain. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities. This suggests that there is a genetic basis to the disorder. Buty there has been no gene linked directly to autism. The genetic basis is believed by researchers to be highly complex, probably involving several genes in combination. 


Autism is not a mental illness. Children with autism are not unruly kids who choose not to behave. Autism is not cause by bad parenting. These are just some of the several theories that are false about the cause of autism. They have been proven false. Furthermore, no known psychological factors in the development of the child have been shown to cause autism. 


An accurate diagnosis must be based on observation of the individual’s communication, developmental levels and behavior. Because many of the behaviors associated with autism are shared by other disorders, various medical tests may be ordered to rule out or identify other possible causes of the symptoms being exhibited. 


Because the characteristics of autism vary so much, a child should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team which may include a neurologist, developmental pediatrician, and psychologist, learning consultant, speech/language therapist or another knowledgeable professional about autism. In some cases, well-meaning professionals have misdiagnosed autism. Difficulties in the recognition and acknowledgement of autism can lead to a lack of services to meet the needs of individuals with autism. 


Parental input and developmental history

A brief observation of in a single setting cannot present a true picture of an individual’s abilities and behaviors. Parental input and developmental history are very important components of making an accurate diagnosis. At first observation, some autistic people may appear to have a mental retardation, a behavior disorder, and problems with hearing or even odd and eccentric behavior. These conditions can co-occur and complicate matters further. It is important to distinguish autism from other conditions, since an accurate diagnosis and early identification can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective educational treatment program. 


Very sensitive imaging studies have shown two areas in the brain that are primarily affected: the cerebellum and the limbic system. Currently the cornerstone of treating autism are special education, family support and counseling, behavioral therapy and treatment for any other symptoms that might make symptoms worse, such as medications to treat seizures. 


A lot of excitement has been generated by recent reports that symptoms of autism dramatically improved in a few children who received Secretin. Secretin is a hormone normally produced by the body. Its main function is to help with digestion. It is actually a peptide produced in the gut. Secretin is sometimes given by vein to children with serious intestinal problems as a diagnostic test. In 1998, three autistic children who were being tested with secretin to evaluate intestinal disorders were observed to have dramatic reductions in their autistic symptoms? Starting to talk, being more alert and maintaining good eye contact. 


Their parents and pediatricians were amazed. Soon, reports started appearing that a miracle drug had been found to treat autism. In a series of 100 autistic children treated with secretin, half of their families reported improvements in sleep, digestive problems and behavior. In another series of 200 autistic children, only about 10% had dramatic improvements. It was not clear whether the improvements were due to the hormone or to the other therapies being used. 


Mystery why secretin might help

It’s still a mystery why secretin might help. It is known that the brain has receptors for a lot of different hormones, including some that have their biggest effects on other organs. For example, another intestinal hormone, called vasoactive intestinal peptide has many receptors throughout the brain. It appears that secretin might bind to brain receptors too. Right now it’s not clear which brain cells bind to secretin, why they do or exactly what the hormone does once it is there. 


Researchers have also found that a diet low in amino acid tryptophan made some symptoms worse in 11 autistic adults. After the special diet, patients were more likely to display typical autism behaviors, including pacing, rocking back and forth, and hitting themselves. Their inability to interact socially didn’t change, but they became more anxious and unhappy. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein; the body converts it into serotonin, which regulates mood and behavior. Previous research suggested that a defect in serotonin production might contribute to autism. 


A second study by the same researchers adds weight to this theory. Autistic adults who took fluvoxamine (Luvox), a drug that boosts brain serotonin levels, were less aggressive and better able to communicate and interact that patients given dummy pills. The 12-week drug treatment also improved some patient’s lives. 


Two people moved out of group homes to supervised apartments. One person was able to keep a full-time job. Although the study involved only 30 adults, the researchers say the results warrant trials in children and adolescents. Drugs currently used to treat autism have limited effectiveness. 


Understanding of autism

Understanding of autism has grown tremendously since Dr. Leo Kunner first described it in 1943. Some of the earlier searches for cures now seem unrealistic in terms of today’s understanding of brain-based disorders. To cure means, to restore health, soundness or normality. In the medical sense, there is not cure for the differences in the brain, which result in autism. However, better understanding of the disorder has led to the development of better coping mechanisms and strategies for the various manifestations of the disability. 


Some of these symptoms may lessen as the child ages; others may disappear altogether. 

With appropriate intervention, many of the associated behaviors can be positively changed, even to the point in some cases, that a child or adult may appear to the untrained person to no longer have autism. The majority of children and adults will, however, continue to exhibit some manifestations of autism in some degree throughout their entire lives. 


Over one half million people in the United States have autism or some form of pervasive developmental disorder. Its prevalence rate makes autism one of the most common developmental disabilities. Yet most of the public, including many professionals in the medical, educational and vocational fields, are still unaware of how autism affects people and how they can effectively work with individuals with autism. Researchers try every day to cure autism. Maybe one day, we will have a cure and these people will not have to live every day of their lives with their disability.


Produced by

Mr. Bobby L Porter -MA

South University of Georgia

College of Arts & Sciences

Science Degree in Psychology - Clinical Psychology


Information collected from a variety of research based resources


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