Humans are social animals. We love companionship with our fellow species. We interact with other people through communication, empathy, and social skills (things you do to form social relationships like greeting, chit chat, dating, etc). But not all can understand human interaction. Some people cannot socialize and empathize like most of us do. They also find it hard to communicate, even if they have the ability to speak. These symptoms are part of the lifelong condition called autism.
What is autism?
Autism is a condition under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. The main features of autism are social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior. Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). This means that persons with autism find it hard to relate to other people, have difficulty expressing themselves, and are preoccupied with what most people consider boring or monotonous like stacking up things in a linear fashion (like arranging toys into 1 line). Autism comes from the Greek word ‘autos,’ which means self, and the English suffix ‘-ism,’ which means condition.
How common is autism?
As of 2010 the rate of autism is estimated at about 1–2 per 1,000 people worldwide, and it occurs four to five times more often in boys than girls. Research indicates that more and more children are diagnosed with autism than before. The number of reported cases of autism increased dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s. This increase is largely attributable to changes in diagnostic practices, referral patterns, availability of services, age at diagnosis, and public awareness. This means people are becoming more aware of autism.
What causes autism?
There is no known cause of autism, but a lot of theories have been formulated. It is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Some risk factors for autism include high maternal age at the time of birth of the child, as well as maternal prenatal medication use, bleeding, or gestational diabetes. Other support of a biological theory of autism includes that several known neurological disorders are associated with autistic features like tuberous sclerosis and the fragile X syndrome (inherited disorder), cerebral dysgenesis (abnormal development of the brain), Rett syndrome (a mutation of a single gene), and some of the inborn errors of metabolism (biochemical defects). A mutation in the CHD8 gene has also been linked as the cause of autism and can also cause gastrointestinal abnormalities. They may also have epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder. About 20 to 30 percent of children with an ASD develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood.
What are the symptoms of autism?
The main feature of autism is absence of social interaction. This starts as early as infancy. Autistic infants show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. By toddlerhood, many children with autism have difficulty playing social games, don’t imitate the actions of others and prefer to play alone. They may fail to seek comfort or respond to parents’ displays of anger or affection in typical ways. Despite lacking social interest, autistic children can be attached to their parents though in unusual ways.
Another feature is difficulty in communication. They also tend to be delayed in babbling and speaking and learning to use gestures. Some infants who later develop autism coo and babble during the first few months of life before losing these communicative behaviors. Others experience significant language delays and don’t begin to speak until much later. Echolalia, or repeating what the other person says, is common in autism. As they grow up, they cannot understand nonverbal communication, figures of speech, and cannot comprehend perspective of another person, making it hard for an autistic person to form relationships.
Having repetitive behavior is also a sign of autism. Common repetitive behaviors include hand-flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling, arranging and rearranging objects, and repeating sounds, words, or phrases. Also, it can take the form of intense preoccupations, or obsessions. These extreme interests can prove all the more unusual for their content. Older children and adults with autism may develop tremendous interest in numbers, symbols, dates or science topics. Routine is their best friend. They love to place all items in specific order. If that order or routine is disrupted, it may cause emotional outbursts and self-inflicting physical aggression to the autistic individual.
Because of these symptoms, autistics are difficult to understand and are often prejudiced. They become subjects of ridicule from neurotypical people, especially if they have no awareness of autism.
The diagram of autism symptoms.
How is autism diagnosed?
Although the severity of symptoms vary, a health care provider can detect these signs to diagnose autism:
no babbling or pointing by age 1
no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
no response to name
loss of language or social skills
poor eye contact
excessive lining up of toys or objects
no smiling or social responsiveness.
impaired ability to make friends with peers
impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
Does autism have a cure?
Autism has no cure. It is managed by therapies, special education, and medications. Therapies include speech therapy, applied behavioral therapy (ABA), occupational therapy, and family therapy for the autistic’s relatives.
Individualized educational approach and tutoring are used for the autistic to suit his or her learning ability.
Medications are given for autism-related symptoms like anxiety, depression, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD). Antipsychotic drugs are given for severe behavioral problems. Anticonvulsants are given for seizure disorder or epilepsy.
What happens if autism is not managed?
The earlier the detection of autism, the better. If not addressed properly, there will be complications. Because of its features, autistics frequently face discrimination and bulling from the classroom to the workplace, which makes them feel isolated. They are prone to depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and mood swings. They are also at high risk for unemployment and placement in a long-term care setting. For autistics with less severe symptoms, they can function as independent adults, though with difficulty including underemployment, divorce or unstable relationships, or may become domestic violence victims.
What about ‘autism spectrum disorders?’
As stated previously, autism falls under the range of disorders called autism spectrum disorders. The ‘common’ autism is the most severe form of autism. Also included is the pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified or low-functioning autism ( individuals with difficulties in the areas of social interaction, communication, and/or stereotyped behavior patterns or interests, but who do not meet the full DSM-IV criteria for autism or another PDD), childhood disintegrative disorder (a rare condition characterized by late onset of developmental delays in language, social function, and motor skills, which starts to appear after a fairly normal development of a child), and Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism (characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests with relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development). These milder forms of autism now fall under the autism spectrum continuum in the 2013 fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Can someone with autism become successful?
Yes of course. Given management and support, an autistic, especially if he or she can be independent, can be successful in his or her area of interest or field. In fact, there are famous people with diagnosed or with suspected autism or other autism spectrum disorders. Here they are:
Syed Talha Ahsan, British poet and awaiting trial on terrorism-related allegations
Danny Beath, award-winning British landscape and wildlife photographer
Henry Bond, writer and photographer
Susan Boyle, British singer and Britain’s Got Talent finalist
Phillipa “Pip” Brown (aka Ladyhawke), indie rock musician
Michael Burry, US investment fund manager
Lizzy Clark, actress and campaigner
William Cottrell, student sentenced for fire-bombing SUV dealerships
Paddy Considine, actor
Johnny Dean, singer/songwriter of Britpop band Menswear
James Durbin, finalist on the tenth season of American Idol
Robert Durst, American real estate developer accused of murder
Tim Ellis, Australian magician and author
Brian A. Gutierrez, State of California Councilmember
Daryl Hannah, actress
Dan Harmon, screenwriter and creator of Community
Peter Howson, Scottish painter
Luke Jackson, author
Heather Kuzmich, fashion model and reality show contestant on America’s Next Top Model
Adrian Lamo, American computer hacker
Adam Lanza, Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre shooter
Clay Marzo, American professional surfer
Gary McKinnon, computer hacker who broke into high-security military and government sites
Travis Meeks, lead singer, guitarist and song writer for acoustic rock band Days of the New
Les Murray, Australian poet
Robert Napper, British murderer
Ari Ne’eman, American autism rights activist
Jerry Newport, American author and mathematical savant, basis of the film Mozart and the Whale
Craig Nicholls, frontman of the Australian alternative rock band, The Vines
Gary Numan, Musician
Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author
Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D., primate anthropologist, ethologist, and author
Nicky Reilly, failed suicide bomber from Britain
John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye
Vernon L. Smith, Nobel Laureate in economics
Raymond Thompson, New Zealand scriptwriter and TV producer
Penelope Trunk, American businesswoman, writer, and blogger
Aleksander Vinter, Norwegian musician who produces under the alias Savant
Liane Holliday Willey, author
Alan Wilson, Musician, Primary Composer, Singer, Guitarist, and Leader of the Blues-Rock band Canned Heat
Vladimir Putin, Russian President
High-functioning autism is an informal term, not an official diagnostic category. Compared to diagnostic criteria for the official ASDs, descriptions of HFA tend to align most closely with Asperger syndrome.
Michelle Dawson, autism researcher and autism rights activist
Temple Grandin, food animal handling systems designer and author
Courtney Love, frontwoman of the rock band Hole
Caiseal Mór author, musician, and artist
Hikari Ōe, Japanese composer
Dylan Scott Pierce, wildlife illustrator
Jim Sinclair, autism rights activist
Donna Williams, Australian author
Satoshi Tajiri, game designer, creator of the Pokémon series.
Frankie MacDonald, Canadian Internet Amateur Weatherman
Jessica-Jane Applegate, Paralympic swimmer
Amelia Baggs, advocate of rights for autistic people
Jacob Barnett, physics student
Lucy Blackman, university educated author
Luca Brecel, Belgian professional snooker player.
Martin Bryant, Australian Port Arthur Mass Shooter
Tony DeBlois, blind American musician
John Hall, Ed. D., American author of Am I Still Autistic and chief executive of Greenwood Hall
Todd Hodgetts, Paralympic shot putter
James Hobley, British dancer and 2011 Britain’s Got Talent finalist
Jonathan Jayne, contestant on American Idol
Bhumi Jensen, grandson of Bhumibol Adulyadej, King of Thailand
Christopher Knowles, American poet
Leslie Lemke, blind American musician
Jonathan Lerman, American artist
Jason McElwain, high school basketball player
Thristan Mendoza, Filipino marimba prodigy
Tito Mukhopadhyay, author, poet, and philosopher
Freddie Odom, U.S. Mayor, actor, and teacher.
Derek Paravicini, blind British musician
James Henry Pullen, gifted British carpenter
Matt Savage, U.S. jazz prodigy
Birger Sellin, German author
Henriett Seth F., Hungarian autistic savant, poet, writer and artist
Daniel Tammet, British autistic savant
50 Tyson, rapper and autism activist
Richard Wawro, Scottish artist
Stephen Wiltshire, British architectural artist
Alexis Wineman – Miss Montana 2012
Say, autistics are not only nerds. They can be also rock stars, politicians, and beauty queens.(^-^)
Even relatives of public figures have autism:
Joshua Aquino, nephew of Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III
Note: Although autism was coined only in the 1900s, many famous people of the past do have autism or autism spectrum disorders.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sir Isaac Newton
Hans Christian Andersen
So if you make fun of your colleague who is autistic, you better watch out because, who knows, maybe one day, he or she will become more successful than you.
Well, well, well, famous folks are autistic.
Interestingly, more and more people, autistics and neurotypicals alike embrace and celebrate their condition autism. Some even plead not to ‘cure’ autistics, but understand them and appreciate their talents instead. This is called ‘neurodiversity’ where instead of making autism a debilitating condition, it makes autism one variation of human brain diversity that specializes in systematized thinking. For more information, see my article Wired Differently.
Bonus: Autism Brain
Image courtesy of BBC News
Researches show that children with autism have different brain development from normal children. In one research done at University of California, San Diego, researchers believe that excessive brain growth does not allow enough time for a child to properly process the experiences and emotions that guide and shape normal behaviour. It means that autistic babies’ brains grow bigger at a faster rate than non-autistic babies’ brains.
Now, let’s compare the adult autistic brain to a neurotypical brain:
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI ) scan of a neurotypical brain vs autistic brain.
In this MRI scan, the autistic brain is bigger than the neurotypical brain. But researchers at Yale University have shown what happens in the brain as an autistic person considers a series of facial expressions. The brain area, called the fusiform face area, which lights up in an MRI of healthy people doing this task is not as active in autistic people. Hmmm… more intelligent maybe. I think that too large brain size cannot accommodate too much information, eh?
Autistics can think differently from the rest.
Final note: Autism can be a disability to most people, but think again. Maybe it’s not really bad to be different at all.
Autism is one of the conditions that fall under the neurodiversity group. Next time, more conditions will be featured.
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9. Bernier, Raphael (2014). “Disruptive CHD8 Mutations Define a Subtype of Autism Early in Development”. Cell 158 (2): 263–276. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.06.017
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