For many parents, the diagnosis of autism sends a chill down their spines. This poorly-understood condition has been on the rise since 1980, though that may be due to better diagnosis, rather than an increase in prevalence. But what is autism, exactly, and what are the symptoms?

Autism is a disorder of the brain which makes communication and social interaction very difficult. It affects many areas in the brain, though how this happens is not well understood.

Children often begin exhibiting symptoms as early as age two. Early diagnosis is critical if the child is to get specialized help. While there is no cure for autism, there have been successes in milder cases. Autistic people can be taught to care for themselves, as they can be taught social skills – the success rate depends on the severity of the condition.

The most common autism symptoms include social impairments. Autistic people have problems understanding socially-based communication that others may take for granted. They are less likely to initiate conversations, maintain eye contact, take turns, and communicate nonverbally. These communication problems can be frustrating to autistic children, resulting in temper tantrums and other forms of “acting out”.

Some individuals with autism never learn to communicate verbally. Similarly, non-verbal communication can be problematic – they are more likely to look at the pointing finger, for example, than the object being pointed at.

Repetitive behaviour is common, and divided into several distinct categories. Stereotypy refers to movement that appears aimless, like rocking or hand flapping. Compulsive behaviour is common – rules must be followed, and objects must be arranged in specific ways. Often, autistic people demand sameness, leaving all routines, all furniture, everything in exactly the same way, all the time. They engage in ritualistic behaviour, performing each day’s activities in the same manner, every day. They may demonstrate restricted behaviour, in which the world is tuned out in favour of a TV program or special activity. Finally, some may tend to self-injury, biting themselves, banging their heads into walls, and so on. These tendencies are common to other illnesses also; however, only in autism do the symptoms occur this frequently and severely.

In rare cases, severely autistic people have rare talents. These autistic savants display amazing talents in mathematics or music. Sometimes, they have an amazing memory of trivia, memorizing bus schedules and more.

The causes of autism are poorly understood. Some see autism as a triad of issues – repetitive behaviour, communication problems, and social difficulties – rather than one single disorder. Genetics may play a role, though many genes may be involved, making genetic analysis difficult. Exposure to certain drugs, viruses, heavy metals, and chemicals in early pregnancy is uncommon, can cause autism.

While there is no cure for autism, many autistic people can develop a certain amount of self-sufficiency. Severe cases require life-long care. They still have much to teach us about living in the present moment.

A young boy with autism, and the precise line of toys he made, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Autism affects many parts of the brain. Courtesy Wikipedia.