Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are a group of complex disorders of brain development. Characterized by varying degrees of difficulty in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication as well as repetitive behavior. People with ASDs have different ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to situations and sensations. It usually sets in at the age of three and lasts through life. Four times more likely to affect boys than girls, this disease can be found across all racial and ethnic groups, and has no single cause. The best available science can only point to certain genetic components.
In 1943, an American doctor reported on eleven children who displayed a prominent lack of interest in other people but were highly interested in the inanimate environment. Dr. Leo Kanner was the first to describe this disorder in a paper he published. He mentioned their ‘powerful desire for aloneness’ and ‘an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness’, and went on later to describe this as ‘early infantile autism’. The word autism, however, was first coined to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients that were particularly withdrawn and self-absorbed. The first case of ASD, as described in the paper by Dr. Kanner, was Donald Gray Triplett. This gifted man could effortlessly name the notes on the piano as they were played and was a mathematical prodigy spitting out figures for calculations such as 87 times 23 with ease.
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What does being on the spectrum mean
All individuals with autism are different. There are those who have exceptional abilities, be it in music, academic or even visual. Some recognized geniuses like Andy Warhol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and even stars like Tim Burton and Tom Cruise are diagnosed autistic. There are many on the autistic spectrum that take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and unique way of perceiving the world. There are, however, others who face significant disabilities and find it incredibly difficult to live by themselves. Almost 25% of people with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate with other means.
Behaviors associated with ASD
Someone affected with ASD can face delayed learning of language, find it difficult to make eye contact or hold a conversation. They also have problems with executive functioning which relates to reasoning and planning. They usually possess narrow and extremely intense interests and may have poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities. It is, however, unfair to think that everyone who falls on the spectrum will display these behaviors, they may exhibit some, a few or many others beside these. The diagnosis for ASD depends upon the cumulative effect and intensity of the behaviors.
An epidemic of ASD
The Centre for Disease Control in the US says that 1 in every 88 children have ASD. There has been an almost 25% increase in these cases over the last few years. This is not just the case in the western nations but also in India and around the world. A majority of autism cases have been a result of the activation or expression of a number of different genes along with multiple epigenetic and environmental factors that trigger the traits of autism. Science has shown how malleable our genes are, and it may only be a matter of time before a solution is found to this debilitating disorder.
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