What causes autism?
It is not yet known what causes autism to occur in some children and not in others. We do know that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are biologically based and that parents do not cause their child to become autistic. Once characterized as a rare disorder, the number of individuals now identified as having an ASD has reached epidemic levels. While this increase has resulted in some promising new research initiatives, there is currently no generally accepted theory that adequately explains exactly what causes autism to occur.
How is autism diagnosed?
Autism is considered a behaviorally defined syndrome for which there are no medical tests. It is typically diagnosed through a combination of activities that includes; collecting historical developmental information from the parents, the use of observational checklists and rating scales, and standardized testing that is intended to describe current performance relative to expected performance. Assessment of social functioning and language development are considered in the diagnosis, and it is not uncommon for an autism evaluation to include a formal measure of intelligence (which is often an underestimate of actual ability). Because autism is considered a "spectrum disorder" that describes a broad range of individuals, understanding "how much" autism someone has is a subjective determination and something that should always be cautiously interpreted.
What are stereotypic behaviors?
Stereotypic behaviors are considered a hallmark feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Commonly referred to as self-stimulatory behaviors or "stims", they are the repetitive and often unusual actions that people with autism appear driven to do. Classic forms of self-stimulatory behavior include motor actions such as body-rocking, hand flapping, finger flicking, and spinning or lining up objects. For individuals with high functioning autism (HFA), stereotypic behaviors often include a "cognitive" component such as repetitively talking about a certain topic, memorizing information such as bus routes or zip codes, or obsessively acting out a video game as if one of the characters.
Why do individuals with autism engage in self-stimulatory behaviors?
Self-stimulatory behaviors can involve any or all of the senses and appear to achieve some outcome that is highly valued by the person with autism. Precisely what this value is however, and exactly how it is achieved, has not yet been definitively determined. There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the nature of self-stimulatory behavior in autism. One theory suggests that it may be an "under arousal" issue in which for some unknown neurological reason, the person is seeking sensory stimulation and engages in stereotypic behaviors as a means of arousing the nervous system. Another theory proposes an "over arousal" explanation in which the person with autism, overwhelmed by the environment, engages in stereotypic behavior to block out external stimulation in an attempt to calm the nervous system. Still another theory suggests that engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors may produce a release of beta endorphins in the brain that produce a highly pleasurable experience that is chemical in nature.
Why do individuals with autism frequently appear anxious?
It is quite common for individuals who have autism to appear overly anxious or on the verge of becoming upset for no apparent reason. This is generally believed to be related to how they experience the world. Due to differences in brain structure and function, attempting to understand the environmental expectations of everyday life can be extremely demanding for those with autism. Sensory differences that influence the way the world is experienced as reported by individuals on the spectrum, can be extremely uncomfortable or even painful. The inability to accurately interpret the actions of others, logically predict, or to effectively communicate emotions, are all thought to contribute to the excessive anxiousness commonly observed in those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Why is it said that individuals with autism can "see the trees but not the forest"?
Individuals with autism are often quite skilled at noticing minute details. The problem is that this frequently occurs at the expense of grasping "the bigger picture". Because they tend to hyper-focus on tiny, often irrelevant details in the environment, people on the autism spectrum regularly miss out on other more important pieces of information. With additional difficulties in the ability to integrate information, it is as if individuals with autism move through the world in a series of seemingly unconnected events without really deriving much meaning from the overall experience.
How does having autism affect the ability to interact with others?
Individuals with autism have difficulty interacting with others – it is in large part what defines the disorder. The social problems that people on the autism spectrum experience are likely a result of a combination of factors. Because social interactions tend to be spontaneous they are less predictable. They never occur in exactly the same way, so it is hard to provide consistent practice opportunities. Understanding the emotional context of an interaction requires an accurate interpretation of body language and facial expressions, something that people with autism experience great difficulty with. True reciprocal interactions are rarely ever fully achieved since individuals who have autism often fail to recognize that other people have their own thoughts, ideas, opinions, and beliefs. Social language is problematic because it involves the use of terms that are not concrete and where words can mean more than one thing. A restricted range of often unusual interests makes it difficult to keep others interested. The need for close proximity to others during an interaction may be an unpleasant sensory experience the person with autism is motivated to avoid. Having impaired imitation means that social skills will not be learned vicariously by exposure. For individuals on the autism spectrum, developing the ability to interact with others requires that specific social skills are systematically taught and practiced.
Why is structure important for individuals with autism?
People with autism have problems drawing logical conclusions from the environment and lack a general sense of predictability. This makes adapting and adjusting their behavior in response to the ever-changing demands of daily life especially difficult. Without structure, individuals with ASD are unable to effectively organize themselves, are more likely to remain dependent on others, and may become more easily frustrated increasing the chances that inappropriate behaviors will occur. Being routine-oriented by nature, individuals with ASD respond best in settings that are structured, consistent, and that make connecting events in the environment easier to achieve.
What is applied behavior analysis and why is it important for individuals with autism?
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) can be described as the science of influencing behavior. Based on a set of learning principles common to all human beings, ABA uses specific procedures to increase, decrease, and refine behaviors. Throughout this process, data collection and analysis occur to determine whether or not the procedures are having the desired effect. ABA is a great instructional fit for individuals with autism because it is a highly individualized systematic approach to learning. Its emphasis is on the development of meaningful skills and behaviors through the use of positive reinforcement and has decades of peer-reviewed research behind it. For individuals with autism, ABA has been scientifically demonstrated to be the single most effective teaching intervention to date.