Autism and Your Child

What is autism?

What causes autism?

How is autism diagnosed?

If my child has autism, does it mean that he or she is mentally retarded?

Autism and your Child

1. What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects individuals differently. It is characterized by deficits or difficulties in social skills, communication, and behavioral problems stemming from these and the presence of interests that while appropriate might be all-consuming. These behaviors or interests then tend to interfere with daily activities whether in the area of social skills or self-help skills. There is no "one picture" of an individual with autism, and this can lead to a great deal of confusion when individuals are assuming specific behaviors, such as not speaking or rocking back and forth repeatedly or the character in the movie Rainman. Not only do many individuals with autism have age appropriate language abilities, but often individuals with autism also have developmentally appropriate social interests. It seems that the hallmark presentation of individuals with autism is the inconsistency with which age appropriate communication and social skills are used across school, home or employment settings, and the respective relationships in each of these settings. There are a variety of websites that provide information that you might find helpful:

From the group Autism Speaks: Click here to visit the website.
From the American Academy of Pediatrics: Click here to visit the website.

2. What causes autism?
This is the multi-million dollar question that has resulted not only in frustration, but fortunately, research funding. Because no two people with autism are "exactly alike," with different behavioral issues and cognitive strengths and weaknesses that change throughout life and development, it is thought that there is no single cause. Rather, autism is probably caused by a combination of factors that are still yet to be identified. Because the cause of autism is unknown, it remains extremely difficult to identify appropriate interventions that fit every individual, and predict development. Obviously, this uncertainty is terribly frustrating. On the plus side, through the commitment and advocacy of families affected by autism, interest in and funding for autism research is on the rise, so new and better information continues to be reported. The Autism Speaks website, amongst others, provides more information.

About Autism: Click here for more information.
Click Here to view a recent article in the LA Times regarding the role of genetics in Autism.

3. How is autism diagnosed?
Autism is diagnosed based on clinical observation and testing by a professional using one or more standardized tests. There is no one test or measure that confirms or rules-out an autism diagnosis; rather measures are to be used as part of an diagnostic evaluation. Professionals most likely to diagnose autism are psychologists, psychiatrists, developmental pediatricians, and neurologists. School providers will also utilize a variety of measures to identify the features of autism that might be interfering with school adaptation. Best practice guidelines have been identified by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1999), the American Academy of Neurology (2000), and the California Department of Developmental Services (2002), among others. Typically the parent or caregiver who is most familiar with the early childhood history is needed to provide a comprehensive developmental history. The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R, 2003) is recognized as a best practice measure that structures the assessment of developmental milestones and behavioral abnormalities that may be associated with any type of developmental delay, and which are of particular importance in the diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Best practice guidelines for further assessment include a measure of cognitive functioning or intellectual abilities, a measure of adaptive functioning, and the measure of social communication, the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS, 1999). Additional evaluations are recommended including speech and language, neurological, and psychiatric. There are numerous screening measures which may be used in the diagnostic process. There is no one measure that definitively diagnoses an autism spectrum disorder or reveals whether someone is mildly or severely affected. Because of the inconsistent presentation of autism spectrum disorders, the evaluation process can be extensive, and a typical office visit with any type of a provider might not be sufficient to rule-in or rule-out a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

For more information on the evaluation process: California Department of Developmental Services Best Practice Guidelines. Click here to view the document.
Organization for Autism Research (OAR), click here for more information.

4. If my child has autism, does it mean that he or she is mentally retarded?
This is a very good question. Mental retardation does not mean that an individual cannot learn; it means that learning some things takes longer. To date, the term intellectual disability is also used to describe individuals with more challenges learning. Formally it was believed that approximately 75% of individuals diagnosed with autism also had significant intellectual disabilities. Because research has identified interventions that help individuals learn, it appears that the number of individuals who are more challenged intellectually has decreased. It is not typically possible to predict the cognitive potential of an individual with autism at an early age, and often individuals with autism have learning difficulties, and thus learn slowly in some areas while demonstrating appropriate progress in others. On the other hand, having a diagnosis on the autism spectrum also does not automatically mean that an individual is very bright.