Autism is a word today that still leaves people
with many unanswered questions. Many aren’t
sure how to really describe it; some think
that their children have been misunderstood
and misdiagnosed; and some wonder if more
can’t be done to help those who have this
I know that Autism Speaks, a very
informative website set up to give answers
and information on the topic has been very
helpful to many; so this week I want to give
some insight into autism; but encourage you
to visit the website as it does have a wealth of
information on offer.
What is autism? What is autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and
autism are both general terms for a group
of complex disorders of brain development.
These disorders are characterized, in varying
degrees, by difficulties in social interaction,
verbal and non-verbal communication and
repetitive behaviours. With the May 2013
publication of the DSM-V diagnostic manual,
all autism disorders were merged into one
umbrella diagnosis of ASD.
Previously, they were recognized as
distinct subtypes, including autistic disorder,
childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive
developmental disorder-not otherwise
specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger
ASD can be associated
with intellectual disability,
difficulties in motor
attention and physical
health issues such as
sleep and gastrointestinal
persons with ASD excel
in visual skills, music,
maths and art.
Autism appears to
have its roots in very
early brain development.
However, the most
obvious signs of autism
and symptoms of autism
tend to emerge between
two and three years of
age. Autism Speaks continues to fund
research on effective methods for earlier
diagnosis, as early intervention with proven
behavioural therapies can improve outcomes.
What causes autism?
We now know that there is no one cause
of autism, just as there is no one type of
autism. Over the last five years, scientists have
identified a number of rare gene changes, or
mutations, associated with autism. A small
number of these are sufficient to cause autism
by themselves. Most cases of autism, however,
appear to be by a combination of autism risk
genes and environmental factors influencing
early brain development.
In the presence of a genetic predisposition
to autism, a number of non-genetic or
“environmental” stresses appear to further
increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence
of these autism risk factors involves events
before and during birth. They include
advanced parental age at time of conception
(both mum and dad), maternal illness during
pregnancy and certain difficulties during
birth, particularly those involving periods of
oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. It is
important to keep in mind that these factors,
by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather,
in combination with genetic risk factors, they
appear to modestly increase risk.
A growing body of research suggests that
a woman can reduce her risk of having a
child with autism by taking prenatal vitamins
containing folic acid and/or eating a diet rich
in folic acid (at least 600 mcg a day) during the
months before and after conception.
What does it mean to be on the
Each individual with autism is unique.
Many of those on the autism spectrum have
exceptional abilities in visual skills, music
and academic skills. About 40 per cent have
average to above average intellectual abilities.
Indeed, many people on the spectrum take
deserved pride in their distinctive abilities
and “atypical” ways of viewing the world.
Others with autism have significant disability
and are unable to live independently. About
25 percent of individuals with ASD are
nonverbal but can learn to communicate
using other means. Autism Speaks’
mission is to improve the lives of all those
on the autism spectrum. For some, this
means the development and delivery of
more effective treatments that can address
significant challenges in communication and
physical health. For others, it means increasing
acceptance, respect and support.
Learn the signs of autism and some
• No big smiles or other warm, joyful
expressions by six months or thereafter.
• No back and forth sharing of sounds,
smiles or other facial expressions by nine
• No babbling by 12 months.
• No back and forth gestures, such as
pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12
• No words by 16 months.
• No meaningful, two-word phrases (not
including imitating or repeating) by 24 months.
• Any loss of speech, babbling or social
skills at any age.
How is autism treated?
Each child or adult with autism is
unique and, so, each autism intervention
plan should be tailored to address specific
needs. Intervention can involve behavioural
treatments, medicines or both. Many persons
with autism have additional medical conditions
such as sleep disturbance, seizures and
gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Addressing these
conditions can improve attention, learning and
Typically, different interventions and
supports become appropriate as a child
develops and acquires social and learning
skills. As children with autism enter school,
for example, they may benefit from targeted
social skills training and specialized approaches
to teaching. Adolescents with autism can
benefit from transition services that promote
a successful maturation into independence and
employment opportunities of adulthood.
For more information on autism, please
(Bonnie Leonce is a sign language
interpreter with an Associate of Arts
degree in interpreting training.