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Understanding autism: We look at some basic questions to help us unravel the complexities of the disorder.

When you think of autism, you probably think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. He portrayed an autistic savant struggling to communicate on a social level. He was, however,  brilliant with numbers. In reality, this depicts only a small portion of those who fall into the autism spectrum disorder. Understanding  autism can be difficult, but knowledge is power.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological disorder concerning the development, or delay thereof, of the brain. There are variations of autism, leading to the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Various autism disorders now fall under this umbrella term.

Asperger’s –  sometimes referred to as high-functioning autism –  is the mildest form of the disorder.

Pervasive Development Disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), was often used as a diagnosis for those who showed symptoms more severe than Asperger’s, but less than autistic disorder. The latter is less common, but more severe.

Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, while both severe, are rare.

Diagnosis of ASD is now based on how much support an individual needs.

What causes it?

ASD doesn’t have one specific cause. Several elements have been found to contribute to the development of the disorder. Autism South Africa notes that there is thought to be a genetic component that contributes to the delayed development of the brain in early childhood. Environmental factors, together with a genetic risk, may also impact development. But as yet there are no definitive answers.

What behaviours are characteristic of autism?

Just as autism is a spectrum of disorders, so too do the behaviours that characterise it fall into a spectrum. No two people with the condition display the same behaviours. But Autism South Africa says these typically include:

  • difficulty with social interaction
  • difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication
  • repetitive behaviours
  • differences in sensory perception.

These behaviours may vary depending on where a child falls on the spectrum. For instance, those with Asperger’s may be intelligent, but can become obsessive in their interest of a certain subject. And, they struggle with social skills. While those with autistic disorder have more severe symptoms, which may affect their social and language skills more seriously. They may also have more repetitive behaviours, seizures and impaired brain function.

Read our articles on understanding autism on proper care for autistic children.

What should you do if your child displays these behaviours?

ASD can take several years to be diagnosed. This is partly because professionals can sometimes be reluctant to label a child with ASD. But early intervention can help improve the condition. While it isn’t curable, with the correct (and early) treatment by professionals, children can learn to overcome some of the developmental delays. So if your child is exhibiting certain signs, it is advisable to speak to a professional. Some of these signs, says Autism South Africa, include unusual repetitive behaviours, little interest or awareness of others, poor imaginative play, delayed or unusual speech and language development, dislike of being touched, distress over changes in routine, or difficulty  interacting with others.

Read a father’s story about loving a son with autism.

Find support

Autism South Africa stresses that every individual along the spectrum is unique. If parents are  concerned they should persist with finding assistance and appropriate referral. Early intervention is vital. Parents don’t need to wait for a diagnosis before starting intervention –  the earlier this begins, the better. However, it’s also never too late to provide support.

For more information or guidance, visit Autism South Africa.

Tamlyn Vincent