What is autism?
Autism is a severe disruption of normal developmental processes that occurs in the first three years of life. It is manifested in impaired language, cognitive, social and adaptive functioning. These essential skill deficits cause children to fall progressively farther behind their typical peers as they grow older. The cause is unknown, but evidence points to physiological and neurological abnormalities.
Children with autism generally do not learn in the same way that children normally learn, because, in part, they lack the fundamental skills which enable them to acquire and process basic information. They appear to lack understanding of simple verbal and nonverbal communication, are often affected by sensory over-stimulation or under-stimulation, and seem withdrawn in varying degrees from people and the world around them. They are often preoccupied with certain activities and/or objects, which further interferes with their ability to acquire skills and learn from information that is available to them. These difficulties result in significant delays in their development of language, play and social skills, including their failure to notice and learn through imitation of their peers.
Children with autism do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags further behind other children the same age. Some other children appear to develop typically to a certain age. Often, between 12 and 36 months old, the differences in the way they react to people and other unusual behaviors become apparent. Some parents report the change as being sudden, and that their children start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had previously acquired. In other cases, there is a plateau, or levelling, of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more noticeable.
The earlier the disorder is diagnosed, the sooner the child can be helped through treatment interventions. Pediatricians, family physicians, daycare providers, teachers, and parents may initially dismiss signs of autism, optimistically thinking the child is just a little slow to develop and will "catch up." Although early intervention has a dramatic impact on reducing symptoms and increasing a child's ability to grow and learn new skills, it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten.