What is Autism?

The characteristics of autism were first described by Leo Kannner in 1945. Since then, much research has been done to find the cause of autism, define the identifying characteristics, and to determine ways to help autistic people grow to their fullest potential. We still do not know all that there is to know about autism, but we have come a long way since 1945.

The study of autism is still in its infancy, and much yet remains to be ascertained. For example, we now know that the old theory of "refrigerator" parenting isn't a valid causal explanation for the phenomenon. Modern research is beginning to focus on genetic factors, which seem to hold promise as potential explanations. Yet although many issues have been cleared up, many more questions remain to be answered.

The term "autism" is used today to describe both classic autism, as defined by Leo Kanner above, plus a similar condition known as "Asperger's Syndrome", which was originally described in Austria at about the same time. There are significant differences between the two, and we are still trying to sort them out. We both believe it's necessary to understand Asperger's better before writing a truly definitive definition of both.

We expect to revise this document in the future as our knowledge increases. Please note that at present it may well fit the classic (Kanner) style of autism much better than the other one (Asperger's). We will update it further as we obtain more answers to our questions. As things now stand, however, it does represent our best attempt at a definition of the overall condition.

The autistic brain has many differences from the "normal" brain. First, the bones and blood vessels in the autistic brain work together to form a sixth sense organ. The information from this, as well as the other sensory organs, is transferred to the thinking part of the brain by nerve endings. Autistic brains have many more nerve endings in this transferal area. Although there are more of them, these nerve endings are much less developed. Comparisons of autistic brains with regard to age show that these nerve cells develop as the person develops. The autistic nerves allow for a greater differentiation between stimuli.

Cognitive realization of sensory input involves the integrating of sensation into pictures that fit our "concept" of the universe. This concept comes from pictures already stored in our instinct or from past experiences in life. Since neither the instinctual memories nor the experiences that the autistic person has had in this "normal" world contain information from a sixth sense or of the differentiation made possible by the autistic brain, the autistic cognitive centers often misinterpret the incoming sensory information. This results in events such as "hearing" a touch or "seeing" "sounds" as colors. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters are used extensively to process the many different sensory signals coming into the autistic brain. Because of this, there is often a lack of neurotransmitters in areas of the brain that control many other cognitive abilities.

Autistic people who are treated with serotonin reuptake inhibitors like clomipramine or serotonin agonists like LSD have much improved cognitive functioning. However, the side effects of these drugs (such as slowing down incoming sensory processing in the case of the reuptake inhibitor) must be weighed carefully before accepting them as a "cure". Since the autistic brain is designed differently than the "normal" brain, autism cannot be cured. However, autistic people can learn, and help each other to learn, to function adequately and much more than adequately with the proper environments.

We did not need this knowledge to know that autism is largely a condition related to sensory processing. Many autistic people have said this in many case studies. Sensory information seems to come to the autistic individual in infinite detail and holistically, that is all at once. It is often hard for the autistic person to integrate what they are experiencing into separate and unique entities. Also, they are very sensitive to many stimuli that most people ignore. Autistic children become aware of this fact at a very young age. Since their parents are usually not autistic, they are often of little help to the autistic child in sorting out sensory information and making sense of their world. This is the first step that begins the loneliness that most autistic people feel for much of their life.

Autistic children develop a profound ability to control their awareness of incoming sensory information very early in life. Many are taken for hearing tests as early as five or six months of age. As the child attempts to decipher and integrate sensory information, he or she often engages in somewhat bizarre behaviors aimed at interpreting and integrating the sensory input that they receive. These behaviors include rocking, spinning, flapping arms, tapping fingers, watching things spin, gazing at reflections and so forth. Children engaging in these behaviors are attempting to understand the world around them. It is wise to encourage these behaviors when they will not result in embarrassment for the autistic person. Engaging the child in more socially acceptable sensory stimulating behavior such as swinging on swings or spinning on merry go rounds can help the child gain sensory stimulating information without engaging in less acceptable behaviors. When the child is in the first few years, this can be done by spinning the child while holding them, etc. The parent or teacher can use these "sensory integration" sessions to build a rapport with the child.

Visual integration is easier for infants and young autistic children if objects are presented in large mass with solid colors. Mobiles are especially good for infants if they are comprised of simple objects. [Objects that have a common grouping but are each unique in themselves such as different letters with various colors, types of circus animals, or individual clowns may help the infant to establish a hierarchy of concepts.] Autistic people may prefer lower light levels in their play and bedroom areas. They may also show a preference for a particular color of lighting. Some autistic people prefer to wear sunglasses of some color when exposed to bright sunlight and often when exposed to the ultraviolet rays of modern fluorescent lighting. Parents of autistic children and infants should experiment with lighting in the child's spaces. This should also be a consideration in the classroom whenever possible. A previous ANI newsletter gives an excellent outline for helping a young or nonverbal person find a color for and get used to sunglasses if they are needed. If a child appears to be bothered in a certain room and no other solution can be found, consideration should be given to lighting as well as reflection of wall surfaces. It is very hard for an autistic child to integrate visual information in the presence of an overwhelming perception of a particular band wave.

The senses of touch and taste are more direct than other senses and do not require the translation of remotely generated waves. For this reason, they are somewhat more reliable to most autistic people. Autistic people often use these senses to explore the world around them. This leads to misunderstood behaviors like putting things in their mouths or reaching to feel surfaces on walls, furniture, people, or anything that appears to be a unique surface to them. Encouraging autistic people to explore a multitude of textures when they are very young can help to alleviate some of these behaviors at less appropriate time and ages. During these exploring sessions, autistic infants and children can also be taught when it is inappropriate to touch, what things are appropriate and safe for tasting, and other necessary information. Again, these sessions also become a way to share with and therefore help to build a rapport with the child.

Since their world is so different from that of others, autistic people often have a hard time in "normal" social relationships. Although they want friends desperately, they often find that the people they interact with find their interests and observations somewhat strange. In addition, autistic people think better in concrete, logical terms. Although they have active imaginations and can be extremely creative, they do not have a good capacity for inventing a "fantasy" and sharing it with others. This is visible in autistic children's play, and can become a problem when the autistic person begins to deal with complicated social interactions. The social context of most "normal" people comes from ideas that aren't necessarily formed from logical thinking but are accepted by them as young children and grows more complex with age. The result is a "fantasy" that they all hold in common and that governs many of their actions. Autistic people do not have the capacity to understand this fantasy well. Therefore, they do and say many things that violate most people's social context without realizing that there is something that they are violating. This is most easily seen in some of the adverse interactions between young autistic people and authority figures. The social isolation that this produces increases their loneliness and feelings of being different.

Due to their increased sensory awareness, autistic people are very aware of other people's emotions. These emotions, as well as their own emotions, are not easily understood by autistic people but they are experienced quite intensely. These feelings, combined with tough social interactions, make it very hard for the autistic person to discuss things that are very close to them. For this reason, they often do not ask for help when they most need it. They also react intensely to other people's emotions. This is particularly a problem at school or work as reactions to emotional responses may become circular and develop into unnecessary conflict.

Because their world is so confusing, autistic people often express their frustration by exhibiting bad behavior. They may throw tantrums or try to hurt themselves or destroy property. Some of this behavior can be very frightening. It is best during these tantrums to allow the person as much space as possible without allowing them to harm themselves. Autistic people almost never attack or harm others unless they are trying to force them physically against their will. When an autistic person throws a tantrum, there is usually something in their environment that is disturbing them. For this reason it is wise to try and identify the problem, adjust the environment to ease the frustration, and try to help the person sort out the problem and adjust to the altered situation if possible.

Autistic people need warm loving guidance to grow to their full potential. They also, like all human beings, need to know that they are accepted by others for who they are. An autistic person's strange behaviors often elicit reactions of anger and remorse from those that they are closest to. Since autistic people sense emotion so strongly, they are very aware of these responses to their actions. This adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation that many autistic people often feel. Often, these reactions in parents come from misunderstanding, confusion, and fear for the child's future. Sometimes, the parent's are sad that the child will not live out their own hopes and dreams. Like every human being, it is important for the autistic person to develop a sense of self worth. Therefore, the most important things that parents can do for their children are to try to understand them and who they are, to love them for who they are and not for who they want them to be, to try to help them integrate the sensations of the world into coherent pictures that can be shared, to help them master the skills and knowledge that will allow them to survive in the world that they must live in, and to help them cherish themselves as the wonderful human beings they are.

The more you know about autism, the more you will be able to understand and help autistic people. Recognition that a person is autistic is the first step to being able to make their life easier and to help them grow. If you know of a child that exhibits at least seven of the following behaviors, consider the idea that they may be autistic. If they are, you can use your knowledge from this and other resources to help them grow to be a wonderful person.

  1. Avoids making eye contact.
  2. Has unusual reactions to stimuli, (i.e. acts deaf or covers ears without known reason.)
  3. Has peculiar body motions such as flapping arms, rocking, or flicking fingers.
  4. Does not seem to be aware of danger.
  5. Overreacts or under reacts to pain.
  6. Has not developed speech or speech development is unusual. (Repeats what you say instead of responding, etc.)
  7. Uses toys in an unusual manner.
  8. Does not engage in pretend play.
  9. Displays indifference to people and activities around themselves.
  10. Talks incessantly about one topic.
  11. Displays extreme distress at even minor changes in the environment.
  12. Laughs or giggles inappropriately or has inappropriate facial expressions.
  13. Is reluctant to or refuses to play with other children.
  14. Seems retarded but has one or two normal or superior skills.
  15. Has trouble with normal social interactions.

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