Autism: from Mystery to insight and hope
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Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. Autism can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function.

Below is a section of a book written about autism.


A decade of research on Autism: From Mystery to Insight and Hope (Eric Courchesne, 1999)

Though first described more than sixty years ago, autism has lost some of the mystery only in about the last 15-20 years. One of the common serious neuro-developmental disorders, it occurs in about 1 of every 500 people in US.

Autistic people may manifest deficits in social and language communication, attention, motor, control and sensory perception, learning, and memory. Understanding the disorder is even more difficult because no two autistic people are alike.

A child often is diagnosed with autism after parents report the first symptoms- at around 18-20 months-when their child is not talking. The key symptom is an inability to engage in joint social attention: for example, child and parent interacting while playing with a toy. To do this, the child must be able to focus on new information, pay close attention to learning social and language information, redirect his or her attention quickly, and pay attention to more than one thing at once.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare normal and autistic individuals, we can determine where in the nervous system there might be abnormal activation when subjects are paying attention to visual information. In the normal brain, parietal lobes are strongly activated when someone is paying attention to visual information. Similarly, the normal cerebellum activities strongly during visual attention, but the autistic cerebellum either do not activate or activates in the wrong location.

We can learn more by observing brain activation when someone’s attention is captured and when their attention shifts. When new information is delivered to autistic subjects, their brains produce smaller neural responses than the brains of normal subjects. When we instruct autistic and normal people to pay attention to different spatial locations, the normal person has a slightly greater brain response to the target location and slightly smaller responses to neighboring areas.

Common signs and symptoms of a person with autism are:

  • Prefers to play alone
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Does not share interests with other
  • Has flat or inappropriate facial expressions
  • Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about own feelings
  • Becomes upset by relatively minor changes
  • Do not respond to their name by 12 months
  • Unexpected reactions to sounds, tastes, sights, touch, and smells

Although there is no particular treatment for Autism here are some common categories of treatment for autism are given below.