What is Autism?

The word “autism” comes from the Greek word autos, meaning “self.” It’s been used for about 100 years to describe a condition in which children can’t engage in social interaction. Children with autism may look like other kids, but if you met them you would find they are different in some important ways… especially ways that make it difficult for them to be in social situations. For example,  it may be hard for them to communicate, to play with other children, to make friends or to learn new things. Signs of an ASD can include:

  • Repeated motions (rocking or spinning)
  • Avoiding eye contact or physical touch
  • Delays in learning to talk
  • Repeating words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Getting upset by minor changes

Dr. Leo Kanner, MD, working at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, first identified the disorder in in America in 1940’s. Dr. Kanner is known as the father of child psychiatry for his pioneering work related to autism. At about the same time in Europe, Hans Asperger, MD, a German scientist and pediatrician, identified patients with similarly withdrawn behavior as a condition now known as Asperger’s syndrome. Today, autism is better defined by the term “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” which describes a wide range of developmental disabilities.  

What is Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are general terms for a group of complex disorders that describe abnormal development and function of the brain. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability in functioning that can occur in people with ASD. No one knows why some people have autism, and there may be many different causes. scientists are still trying to find out just what those causes are and how to best help people with autism. Approximately 1,500,000 people in the United states have autism, and it is more common in boys than girls. The symptoms are present from early childhood and affect daily functioning. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be characterized by:

  • Difficulties with social interaction

Mutual give-and-take nature of typical communication and interaction is often particularly challenging. Often, kids with ASD do not understand how to play or engage with other children and may prefer to be alone. Kids with ASD may find it difficult to understand other people’s feelings or talk about their own feelings.

  • Difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication

Some kids have trouble talking or understanding what people say. Some may talk too much about a favorite topic. Verbal abilities ranging from no speech at all to speech that is fluent, but awkward and inappropriate are a symptom of ASD. Kids with ASD may have delayed speech and language skills, may repeat phrases, and give unrelated answers to questions. Kids with ASD can also have a hard time using and understanding non-verbal cues such as gestures, body language, or tone of voice.

  • Repetitive and characteristic behaviors
    • Repetitive movements or unusual behaviors such as flapping their arms, rocking from side to side, or twirling
    • Obsessive interest in a particular topic or preoccupied by a particular object

Kids with ASD seem to thrive so much on routine that changes to the daily patterns of life and can be very challenging. Some children may even get angry or have emotional outbursts, especially when placed in a new or overly stimulating environment.

  • Heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli

Because “the spectrum” includes multiple variations in symptoms, a child (or adult) with any one or more of the disorders is said to be “on the spectrum.” Other Disorders with Similar Characteristics Many challenges faced by autistic kids are shared by a broader community of special needs children including motor and neuromuscular challenges, cognitive, sensory and communication issues and visual and auditory impairment. Other disorders include Down Syndrome, Developmental Delay, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Sensory Disorders, Vision and Auditory Deficiencies — just to name a few. Outdoor play, especially experiences in a garden, can be beneficial to all the children facing the challenges their disorder(s) place before them.

SOURCES: Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet Fact, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, http://www.ninds.nih.gov/index.htm What is Autism? Autism Speaks, https://www.autismspeaks.org