What Is Autism?

There are many kinds of autism. Some autistic children are completely oblivious to their surroundings - others interact intelligently with both the physical world and with other human beings, although they are not always in tune with what is going on around them. Some are profoundly mentally handicapped - others are exceptional geniuses. Some undergo radical changes during the course of their lives - others remain pretty much the same. The first thing one must realize when approaching autism is therefore that each autistic person is an individual, and that they can be very different from one another. Although there are certain characteristics common to most autistic individuals, few of these are universal, and all can manifest themselves in many ways. So, while most autistic children lie somewhere between the extremes described above, there is no single description that can be considered typical.

There are three general areas of traits that are found, in one way or another, in all cases. They are deficits in social interaction, deficits in speech and communication, and resistance to change. It is by these traits that autism is diagnosed. But although all autistic children have traits within each of these categories, they may be difficult to recognize because of the great variation of specific manifestations. Deficits in communication are obvious in the mentally handicapped child who cannot speak at all, but may not be apparent in the autistic genius until dinner time when you say, "Can you pass the salt?" and in complete innocence he simply answers, "Yes."

So too, many autistic children do not seem deficient in social interaction. They readily approach others and chat comfortably with them. They don't fit the image of a child who is withdrawn and out of touch. Once you begin to talk to them, however, you realize they are not interacting with you in a normal way.

Resistance to change, too, varies greatly. Some children insist that all the furniture in the house is always arranged the same way, and become visibly upset and even violent is anything is out of place. They insist that daily schedules are maintained without variation. Most are not that extreme. Only a few things matter to them. For some it is a question of predictability. As long as they are informed in advance, they can adjust to most changes, but if they arrive at school one day and there is a substitute instead of the regular teacher they become very upset.

The thing that is most universal and characteristic of the syndrome is "autistic aloneness". In one way or another, the autistic child seems to be in a world of his own. Even those who play with other children remain strangers within the group.

Autism is a life-long condition. It is something some children are born with and it cannot be changed. What is done with it and what they become, however, depends very much upon how they are treated. So while no parent should ever feel guilty for "making" their child autistic, parents and teachers should be aware of how much they can help the autistic child and the radical difference that appropriate therapy and education can make in his or her life. Many autistic children have the potential to grow up to be happy, independent members of society. Those whose intelligence is in the normal range or above can learn to function so well that their underlying autistic condition is rarely apparent. Without the right help, however, they may never achieve their potential.