WHAT CAUSES AUTISM? The cause of autism spectrum disorders are still unknown. Autism is NOT a mental illness. It's a neurological disorder and people on the autism spectrum have been shown to have some structural and chemical differences in their brains and other body systems. Autism is not caused by bad parenting and children with autism are not badly behaving kids. Today research around the world focuses on multiple possible causes of autism such as genetics/heredity, differences in biological brain function (neuropathology), pre-natal factors, possible exposure to environmental toxins, viral infections and immune system deficiencies.
WHAT AGE DO SYMPTOMS OF AUTISM SHOW? Autism is present from birth. Key developmental factors are missing in children with autism. As much as we'd like to know right away if our baby has autism, we can only notice this over time as infants develop. Important developmental milestones and communication (or the lack of it) will be obvious as toddlers grow and mature. While those more affected by autism might have many red flags by 12 to 18 months, others will only become more apparent between 18 and 24 months, and some even later than that.
ARE CERTAIN CHARACTERISTICS PRESENT IN ALL CHILDREN WITH AUTISM? No two children with autism are alike. The autism spectrum is large and you might meet two people with autism and be shocked at how different they are. Some have extreme sensory challenges while others are mild, some have behavior issues while others are compliant, some are excellent with language while others are poor. But one of the universal deficits that's shared by all children with autistic spectrum disorders is a deficit in social relatedness. This is the inherent desire to want to connect with others and want to share with others. This can change over time with effective therapy and social skills training.
CAN CHILDREN DEVELOP NORMALLY AND THEN REGRESS AND DEVELOP AUTISM? Twenty-five to 30 percent of children with autism will go through a phase of regression., This typically takes the form of a loss in communication. Either words that they were previously saying, a loss of gestures such as no longer waving or pointing or a loss in social interactions, such as no longer responding to name or responding to praise, or decreased eye contact. The typical age for regression in autism is anywhere between 15 to 24 months, with the average of 18 to 21 months and a lot of times occurring around 20 months.
WHAT BEHAVIORS ARE WE LIKELY TO SEE IN INFANTS OR TODDLERS WITH AUTISM? Because autism becomes obvious as babies develop, many professionals won't/can't diagnose a toddler before at least 18 months. We can watch out for some red flags before 18 months such as no speech, saying "mama" and "dada" but not discriminating who these words are for. Not following a point by 12 months and/or not pointing. Not having social smiles and not needing to interact with parents. Having poor eye contact with parents or strangers at 12 months. Perhaps one of the best resources for determining if your child has autism is to read the following article which is best suited for children between 18 to 33 months. DOWNLOAD IT NOW
CAN MY CHILD HAVE AUTISM IF HE IS SMART AND HAS LANGUAGE? Yes he may. Many children with autism have a knack for learning numbers, letters and shapes with minimal effort. They learn to calculate math facts and how to read at an early age and quite independently. They may have language too. The thing to watch for is peculiarities in language, for example reversing pronouns, repeatedly saying the same lines, echoing TV scripts or language from others repetitively and communicating with facts, rather than social interest.
WHAT DOES A LANGUAGE DELAY LOOK LIKE IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM? If a child is non-verbal it's easy to identify a language delay. But many have language and that can make it harder for to detect. Language delays are identified by problems in expressive language which is getting the words out and communicating with others. There may also be deficits in receptive language which means understanding what other people are saying. There are marked deficits in social communication and this includes pragmatics as well as non-verbal communication. You are likely to notice impairments in conversation ability. Many people with autism use very literal language to specifically respond to a question, but they don't ask questions back on a related topic and typically don't extend the conversation further.
I'M A PRESCHOOL TEACHER. WHAT AM I LIKELY TO NOTICE IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM? You're likely to notice differences in their language and social behaviors. Young children with autism typically have delayed language or different, unusual, very repetitive language where they will just repeat back things they've heard for example repeating back a question rather than answering it. They don't participate appropriately in social games like hide-and-seek and duck-duck-goose. On a playground, they are more likely to play by themselves than go and show interest in other kids. Their play tends to be very repetitive such as stacking blocks and knocking them down repeatedly or spinning the wheels of cars. They typically don't indulge in any imaginative play. They are likely to find transitions or changes in routine difficult. They may experience tantrums over small issues and find it hard to calm themselves down.
WHY IS EYE CONTACT DIFFICULT FOR PEOPLE WITH AUTISM? We make eye contact with people to assess what they're thinking. Are they bored? Amused? Afraid? We don't always know but we can pretty much guess if it's time to change the subject, console somebody etc. Well just imagine if you couldn't. What if looking at their eyes told you about as much as the speck on the wall behind them. How long do you think you'd be able to stare at that speck before it lost your attention? We look at people's eyes because we get meaningful information which people on the spectrum are unable to get. Looking directly into other's eyes is often distracting for people on the spectrum who say that it becomes hard to keep track of what they're saying, when they need to give so much attention to maintaining eye contact.
WHAT NON-VERBAL BEHAVIORS ARE PRESENT IN PEOPLE WITH AUTISM? People on the autism spectrum have difficulty with eye contact, reading body language and expressing body language. So for example, typically developing people use a lot of hand gestures, eye contact to make a point, expressions and pointing, while many people with autism seem to have a reduction in this kind of behavior.
WHAT IS JOINT ATTENTION AND DO PEOPLE WITH AUTISM LACK JOINT ATTENTION? Joint attention is sharing the same point of attention. For example, if mom suddenly gasps at something, her toddler should turn to see what she is looking at. If she laughs, her toddler should follow her gaze to see what is funny. If she points at something behind her toddler and says "Look at that!" her toddler should turn around to see what she's looking at. The lack of joint attention is very typical in young toddlers with autism and is one of the primary red flags of a developmental delay. The joint attention problem typically disappears over time as individuals grow, mature, learn how to do it as well as the value of sharing attention.
DO PEOPLE WITH AUTISM WANT FRIENDS? Many think that people with autism don't want friends because they shy away from social interaction. However, the reason they shy away is usually from lack of confidence and past experience of being rejected by their peers. Many people with autism would love to have friends but aren't sure how to go about it. They frequently will talk about topics that they're interested in but don't realize that the person they're talking with is not interested in that topic. They might do something that others deem inappropriate in an effort to befriend someone. Unfortunately, the result is that all too often other people are turned off because of the way that those on the autism spectrum try to interact with them.
WILL MY CHILD EVER SPEAK? A crystal ball would be great but unfortunately there is no way to predict if someone will ever speak. The good news is that most children with autism do learn to speak, particularly if they get early intervention at a young age. I have heard thousands of parents voice their worries about their child never learning to talk and a few years later their children have language. Children with autism start speaking at all ages -- 2,5, 7, 9.. you name it. For those that remain non-verbal, it certainly doesn't mean no communication. There are lots of augmentative devices which are like small visual computers as well as sign language to facilitate communication. Just keep in mind that everything is possible. For some hope and inspiration, make sure you read some of the interviews of people with autism on our site.
CHILDREN WITH AUTISM MIGHT HAVE STEREOTYPED BEHAVIOR. WHAT IS THAT? Stereotyped behaviors are repetitive and ritualistic. Examples include flapping hands, flicking fingers, jumping repetitively, switching on and off lights, spinning etc. Children might also have vocal stims such as making noises or repeatedly saying a script. They might also exhibit behaviors that look like tics and have small rituals which they feel a need to follow.