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 Bleuler used the term to refer to a person who was so withdrawn from any kind of social interaction that he appeared to be only absorbed in himself (Autism Through Ages Baffles Science by Robert Williams at Health24 News).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.