What is autism?

  • May 15th, 2011
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Autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex neurological developmental disabilities that are characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with nonverbal and verbal communication, and unusual or severely limited activities, interests, or behaviors. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are defined purely by behavioral manifestations such as deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and deficits in developing and maintaining relationships appropriate to developmental level.

  • Social communication deficits can include an impairment of pragmatic language use, difficulty in the social uses of verbal and nonverbal communication in naturalistic contexts, the functional development of social relationships and discourse comprehension and cannot be explained by low abilities in the domains of word structure and grammar or general cognitive ability.
  • Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests can include stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements or use of objects, excessive adherence to routines, ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior or excessive resistance to change, highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus and a high or low reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment.
  • Individuals diagnosed with ASD will not necessarily show all of the signs and symptoms associated with the disorder.

The degree to which ASD affects an individual’s level of functioning in the home, school and community will vary widely across individuals and stages of development. While autism is known to be the result of neurological differences, the degree to which an individual with ASD is able to adapt and learn is also influenced by the quality of interaction provided by those who teach and care for them. How individuals with autism are taught matters greatly.

ASD spectrum disorders may be associated to varying degrees with a variety of other disorders, including but not limited to Fragile X, Rhett Syndrome, Down syndrome, Tuberous Sclerosis, seizure disorders, intellectual disabilities, and various language disorders. When a diagnosis of ASD occurs, consideration should be given to variables that can influence the functioning of the individual, including developmental level or nonverbal and verbal intelligence, adaptive functioning, verbal abilities, hyperactivity and impulsivity, sleeping difficulties and co-occurring medical/psychiatric problems or achievement delays.

It is estimated that between 1 in 80 and 1 in 240 with an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States have an ASD (CDC, 2010). ASDs are reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, yet are on average are 4 to 5 times more likely to occur in boys than in girls. However, more information on some less studied populations and regions around the world is needed (CDC, 2010).

To date no specific causative variable has been identified which accounts for all incidents of ASD. Research has pointed to several possible factors, including genetics, certain types of infections, and problems occurring at birth.

In Pennsylvania, the provision of special education for students with ASD is determined when students meet the definition of autism as provided by Chapter 14/IDEIA regulations. Those regulations state, “Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction generally evident before 3 years of age, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (b) (4) of this section. A child who manifests the characteristics of “autism” after age 3 could be diagnosed as having “autism” if the criteria in paragraph © (l) (i) of this section are satisfied.”

All individuals with ASD are important members of the school community. People with ASD contribute to the school community and also benefit from meaningful participation within a community of learners.

Autism support services provided in the public school system address needs primarily in the areas of communication, social skills, or behaviors consistent with those of autism spectrum disorders. The individualized education program for these students must address needs as identified by the team which may include, as appropriate, the verbal and nonverbal communication needs of the child; social interaction skills and proficiencies; the child’s response to sensory experiences and changes in the environment, daily routine, and schedules; and, the need for positive behavior supports or behavioral interventions.

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