Autism

Autism is a brain development disorder and is part of the autism spectrum along with Asperger syndrome and other developmental disorders. Symptoms of autism start in the first three years of life and often develop from birth. Symptoms will usually continue into adulthood and it's estimated that one in 200 people have an autistic spectrum disorder.

Autism is a complex condition and although it's known to affect many parts of the brain; how this happens isn't yet understood. The condition has a genetic basis but it's unclear whether this is due to mutations or interactions between genes. Other causes which have been proposed include pesticides, environmental agents and viral infections during pregnancy. Studies linking autism to the MMR vaccine have very little scientific support. In roughly four out of five cases the symptoms of autism will develop from birth and parents usually notice these within the first three years of their child's life. But there are several different types of symptoms which occur commonly in autistic children.

Social problems such as being withdrawn or appearing 'stuck-up' are amongst the most widely experienced symptoms. But it's important to note that not all symptoms will occur in each case. Children with autism may have little interest in making friends or meeting new people and can prefer to be alone. Autistic children often experience a failure to empathise with the emotions of others, like not understanding why someone is angry with them. They also have difficulty in understanding or predicting the feelings and behaviours of others. This means they may find it hard to cope in unfamiliar situations and plan for the future. Children with autism may have difficulty engaging in imaginative play, instead preferring to repeat simple games that a younger child would normally play.

Autistic individuals may display repetitive or compulsive behaviours. Odd movements such as hand-flapping, rocking back and forth and other unusual gestures often occur. Children with autism can develop a love of routines and prefer to know, in advance, what's going to happen every day. This can extend to eating the same types of food or repeating certain actions over and over.

There's currently no 'cure' for autism but there are a range of treatments which may be helpful. Treatment is usually tailored to a child's individual needs with the goals being to increase independence and sociability. The most common therapies include;

Behaviour Therapy - If applied early in life this can help to grow social skills and help an autistic individual care for themselves better. This therapy aims to reduce 'bad' behaviours while rewarding 'good' ones through conditioning.
Special Education - Such as structured teaching, speech and language therapy and social-skills therapy. These help the child to obtain life skills and confidence. It's thought that the sooner these are used the better it is for the individual.
Medication - This is usually used to treat symptoms such as excitement or aggression. Drugs such as anticonvulsants, stimulants and antipsychotics are the most commonly prescribed but there's no known 'cure' for the social impairments involved.

Other methods such as trying to get out and introduce yourself to activities that teach you about social interaction are also beneficial when managing autism. For example watching a play focused on real life events, like Jersey Boys.

Autism can affect people of all social backgrounds and nationalities. But boys are around three times more likely than girls to develop autism. Children with autism often need individual help in learning the social 'rules' which we take for granted. And as such parents play a huge role in meeting the unique needs of their child. Autistic children rarely need full-time institutional care but advice from a psychiatric professional may be needed if behavioural problems become severe. Autism will continue for life but as the severity of the condition can vary, there may be improvements in teenage years and some people with autism do become more sociable. Some adults with autism manage to work and live with little support but many need full-time care and live at home with family. In later life a placement in a residential home is often needed.