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Science Outpaced by Autism

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Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, first coined the term autism toward the very beginning of the twentieth century. The word is a direct translation of the Greek: autos, meaning oneself.  Dr. Bleuler used the term to refer to a person who was so withdrawn from any kind of social interaction that he appeared to be only absorbed in himself (Autism Through Ages Baffles Science by Robert Williams at Health24 News). 

Although Bleuler lived over one hundred years ago, to this day, Autism continues to baffle scientific researchers around the world. Although many likely causes have been suggested, none have proven to be the cause. As a result, treating autism is a crapshoot. As the number of cases increases, it seems there are only trial and error therapies and many frustrated researchers.

So What Are the Symptoms of Autism? 

There is a whole range of symptoms often listed as possible characteristics of autism (emedicinehealth.com). Notice I use the word "possible" because any one individual may display one, several, many, a few, or in some cases, none of the characteristics which follow.

Only through direct observation particularly in the very young (before age 3) will a parent, doctor, or therapist begin to label a suspect child. Some traits displayed by older children thought to be autistic:

 – May like activities involving minimal verbal communication

 – May have very limited passionate interests

 – May not make friends easily

 – May fixate on routines (lining up blocks in a specific order or pattern)

 – May have delayed language

 – May show lack of feeling and avoid cuddling and personal contact

 – May have anger tantrums or “meltdowns”

 – May lack “kidspeak” (funny or cute use of words: bye-bye sock, all gone kitty)

 – May fear or avoid eye contact

 – May lack a sense of humor

 – May not respond when called, named, or spoken to

If I was looking for a specific critical symptomatic attribute, I tend to accept Dr. Bleuler’s original description listed above: lack of social interaction. Almost all of the previous symptoms are indicative of personal self-absorption. Sadly, at the present time, autism is a permanent lifetime disorder.

Current scientific researchers are indicating that the amydgala center of the brain in autistic individuals is larger than in normal people (Archives of General Psychiatry – May, 2009). The amydgala is thought to be responsible for face recognition and expressing emotions.

Treatments for Autism? 

Just as the symptoms of autism are unspecific, so are its treatments. Usually, a combination thereof is helpful. Yet, most children with the disorder can develop and learn depending on its severity and on the age at which intervention is started. While there is no cure, some degree of independence can be achieved along with more appropriate behavior at home and in public places.

Therapists can try any number of techniques to help an autistic child cope with their environment. Then they can teach those which are successful to caregivers.

1)      Behavior Modification, through positive reinforcement, is often used to improve an autistic child’s attention span, to stop obsessive and ritualistic actions, to teach a child basic skills, to control bizarre, out of control, or antisocial behavior.

2)      Play Therapy can improve emotional development. Here, the therapist and/or caregiver interacts with the child letting the child control the interaction. Sometimes this is referred to as the “floortime” approach.

3)      Occupational Therapy helps an autistic child function more independently by teaching basic living skills such as dressing properly, washing and bathing, proper eating habits.

4)      Physical Therapy can help a child with autism to learn control of body movements then develop and hone them by stimulating various muscle groups.

5)      Sometimes a therapist will use Social Stories so the autistic person can express feelings and ideas about an emotional situation. These stories can help an autistic child talk about his feelings and the feelings of others as well. Caregivers can be taught how to develop such Social Stories and use them effectively.

6)      Of course, Speech Therapy to teach a child basic sounds and sight words, particularly “danger” words, is a must if an autistic child is ever going to communicate orally.

7)      When basic verbal communication is not an option, a child can be taught to communicate basic needs, desires, or requests via Picture Exchange with a therapist or caregiver. Numerous but simple picture cards can show wants and/or needs. 

It is often thought that changing the diet of an autistic child, even supplementing it with vitamins and minerals, might prove helpful. However, since no specific cause has been found for the disorder, yes, dietary changes might eliminate food intolerance or some specific allergy — they may even boost attention span and help eliminate depression — but these improvements might just as frequently apply to a normal child as well.

There are medications which appear to help normalize autism, and it takes trial and error to find the correct ones and the proper amounts. In addition, if any of the following drugs must be given, benefits must be weighed against their side effects (neurologychannel.com).

1)      Antidepressants such as Elavil, Wellbutrin, Anafranil, Luvox, and Prozac may help control: depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, irritability, tantrums, aggression; it may improve eye contact and general responsiveness.

2)      Benzodiazepines like Valium, Ativan, Xanax may help with behavioral problems.

3)      Antipsychotic Medications like Clozaril, Risperdal, Zyprexa, and Seroquel, may help decrease: hyperactivity, behavior problems, withdrawal, and aggression.

4)      Stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedine may help increase focus, decrease impulsivity, and decrease hyperactivity.

To sum up, scientific research over the past 100 years has shed few rays of light on the cause(s) of the neurological disorder labeled autism. Thus — no cure. Parents who have given birth to an autistic child undoubtedly face a challenging lifetime learning how to raise their autistic offspring.

But with intervention as early as possible, hopefully before the age of three—the love and persistence of trained caregivers coupled with the services of therapists and Special Education teachers at a much later date—children with autism can grow and learn to manage themselves productively and reach some measure of happy independence.

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About Regis Schilken

  • Dan Hunnel

    My younger son is autistic. And we’ve noticed some behavioral clues and jumped to some, admittedly, biased assumptions and conclusions.

    There appears to be a “sensory lag” involved, such that any given stimulus must persist for longer than “normal” before it is detected. That one simple hypothetical “cause” yields a cascade of complex “effects”. For example, our initial efforts to work on talking, communicating, were hindered by a significant loss of consonents in speech sounds — everything “quick, fast or sharp” faded away too quickly, as reflected early on in what seemed to be fairly characteristic mostly-vowel vocalizations. In the same “lack-of-persistence” context, facial expressions are too fluid and mobile to catch — ‘just a glimpse’ isn’t enough to decode “what was that look on your face?”

    Now for some hope…

    Our son is NOT “stupid”. At some point he figured out how to use the cable box remote control to turn on closed-captioning. And he is FAST — fingers flying almost faster than the onscreen windows can open and close. And how he USES this one simple tool is awesome — he will pick some movie that catches his attention, and turn on closed captioning, and watch that movie, over and over and over — and what he DOES is to memorize the words (he CAN read) and NOW he can cross-reference the written speech with the audible sound-track. And his speaking AND reading comprehension have jumped dramatically, incredibly, amazingly, as a direct result.

    Another linked observation…

    You may be aware that autistic children seem to really like videos of Thomas the Tank Engine and the Canadian near-equivalent, Theodore the Tugboat. The simple key to understanding that “preference”, that “attentiveness”, is to realize that the facial expressions on the railroad cars, as on the tugboats, are persistent, fixed, unmoving at any one time. During a sequence of shots, the facial expressions DO evolve and change against an informative background context of story and music, etc, but they don’t change while you are watching — so there’s never a “fluid motion” involved, which is what would be a problem if this “sensory lag” is in fact significant and pertinent.

    Finally, a realization and suggested agenda for a specific social change…

    There IS a category of video production which would benefit the autism community greatly if made more available. There are videos which are made explicitly for English as a Second Language students, videos describing simple life-skills and using initially simple vocabulary, the visual equivalent of first-grade primers. With a minimum of [something to maintain interest] and with closed-captioning, of course, my son would watch one of these videos over and over and over, and HAVE those skills captured.

    What we NEED is access to people who make decisions about filling community service timeslots for broadcast and cable TV programming. In particular, if these life-skills and ESL vocabulary videos were made available in an “On-Demand” format, this could be one of the single most effective and successful community-service and social-welfare interventions POSSIBLE for the autistic community as a whole.

    Speech-skills, Facial-Expression Recognition-skills, and Life-skills in general: all key elements with the potential for dramatically improving the lives of our burgeoning autistic brethren. Spread the word. I am.

  • Thank you Regis for a well written article.

    Dan Hunnel, thank you for your contributions here. It would appear that having a personal perspective and some troubleshooting skills can really pay off for the autistic child.

  • Thank you for this. Your observations are right on target and the article covers possible therapies and gives a fair assessment of the value of these kinds of therapies.

    My husband and I have two sons on the spectrum and a daughter with ADHD. Our older son has mild/moderate autism and our youngest PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder–not otherwise specified) which is an autism disorder. Our youngest received therapy at an early age and is doing well in school. We expect that as he ages, he will continue to learn and adapt–eventually able to contribute to society.

    Our older son was diagnosed at three and his symptoms were completely different from his younger brother’s. He has improved greatly over the years but we expect that he will always need help and supervision.

    Is it hard parenting children with special needs? Yes, but they are so very worth it!

  • Tressa Bailey

    My 3 children and myself all have been diagnosed with autism. My daughter and I fall in the lowest levels of Asperger’s Syndrom while my boys are considered to have full blown Asperger’s Syndrom. I am 47 and my children range from 16 to 28. It is my considered opinion that autism as we now define it is simply wrong. I believe that the spectrum covers several initially similar, but in the end vastly different syndroms. Our form of autism, despite somewhat lonely and misunderstood childhoods, is vastly different than what you describe in this forum. My adult chilren are both quite successful. My daughter has an IQ in the genius range and is a convenience store manager, under-employed but successful nonetheless. Now 25, she is married to her high school sweet-heart. My older son is a factory supervisor. He does not do well on tests but is able to actually build his own computer, including motherboards and daughterboards (actually creating them). His entire home is computerized. Both of these adult children have a wide variety of quirky and unusual friends. My youngest child is following much the same route with extremely high skills in video photography. I work as an assistant to the General Manager in a 4 star hotel. I was previously employed for many years as a legal assistant.

    The truth is the more we learn about autism the more we find that it is an extremely large range of different symptoms and different prognosis. I think its time we divided it into separate diagnosises and really determine what will work with each differing type. Generalizing it just makes it harder to diagnose and treat.

  • Evan

    im not gonna drift off into my own world im gonna act normal and im not gonna act silly all the timr

  • Regis

    I tend to agree with you Teresa about dividing autism into separate types to determine what works well with each type. As a special educator, I must admit that there are many similarities between diagnosises, but there are also so many, many differences that it is extremely difficult to generalize any one group.

    Obviously, you and your family would easily fit into a highly skilled intellectual group. But there are some children with autism who, althought probably very intelligent, are extremely difficult to actually measure their capacity and ability to interact with others and on intelligence tests.