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The Characteristics of Autism

Autism is a highly variable, neurological developmental disorder whose symptoms first appear during infancy or childhood, and generally follows a steady course without remission. People with autism may be severely impaired in some respects but average, or even superior, in others.  Overt symptoms gradually begin after the age of six months, become established by age two or three years and tend to continue through adulthood, although often in more muted form.  It is distinguished by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction, impairments in communication, and repetitive behavior. Other aspects, such as atypical eating, are also common but are not essential for diagnosis.  Individual symptoms of autism occur in the general population and appear not to associate highly, without a sharp line separating pathologically severe from common traits.

Social development

Social deficits distinguish autism and the related autism spectrum disorders (ASD; see Classification) from other developmental disorders. People with autism have social impairments and often lack the intuition about others that many people take for granted. Noted autistic Temple Grandin described her inability to understand the social communication of neurotypicals, or people with typical neural development, as leaving her feeling “like an anthropologist on Mars”.

Unusual social development becomes apparent early in childhood. Autistic infants show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. Autistic toddlers differ more strikingly from social norms; for example, they have less eye contact and turn-taking, and do not have the ability to use simple movements to express themselves, such as pointing at things.  Three- to five-year-old children with autism are less likely to exhibit social understanding, approach others spontaneously, imitate and respond to emotions, communicate nonverbally, and take turns with others. However, they do form attachments to their primary caregivers. Most children with autism display moderately less attachment security than neurotypical children, although this difference disappears in children with higher mental development or less pronounced autistic traits. Older children and adults with ASD perform worse on tests of face and emotion recognition although this may be partly due to a lower ability to define a person’s own emotions.]

Children with high-functioning autism have more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-autistic peers, despite the common belief that children with autism prefer to be alone.

Friendship

Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for those with autism. For them, the quality of friendships, not the number of friends, predicts how lonely they feel. Functional friendships, such as those resulting in invitations to parties, may affect the quality of life more deeply. There are many anecdotal reports, but few systematic studies, of aggression and violence in individuals with ASD. The limited data suggest that, in children with intellectual disability, autism is associated with aggression, destruction of property, and meltdowns.

Screening

About half of parents of children with ASD notice their child’s unusual behaviors by age 18 months, and about four-fifths notice by age 24 months. According to an article, failure to meet any of the following milestones “is an absolute indication to proceed with further evaluations. Delay in referral for such testing may delay early diagnosis and treatment and affect the ong-term outcome”.

Loss of any language or social skills, at any age.

No response to name (or eye-to-eye gaze) by 6 months.

No babbling by 12 months.

No gesturing (pointing, waving, etc.) by 12 months.

 No single words by 16 months.

No two-word (spontaneous, not just echolalic) phrases by 24 months.

Prevention

While infection with rubella during pregnancy causes fewer than 1% of cases of autism, vaccination against rubella can prevent many of those cases.

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