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What Is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that typically involves delays and impairment in social skills, language, and behavior.  Autism is a spectrum disorder (ASD), this meaning that it affects people differently.  Some people may have speech, whereas others may have little or no speech.  Less severe cases might fit the DSM-IV criteria for Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or Asperger’s Syndrome (these peple typically have normal speech, but they have many “autistic” social and behavioral problems).
Autism literally means “aloneness,” or living in one’s own world.  In severe cases, people with ASD may not interact with others, or treat people as objects.  In milder cases it makes it difficult to understand and relate to the other persons, included their perspectives and emotions.

What is the difference between Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism?

Asperger syndrome is usually considered as a subtype of high-functioning autism.  Most of the individuals with Asperger syndrome are described as “social but awkward.”  That is, they want to have friends, but they do not have the social skills to easily begin and/or maintain a friendship.   High-functioning autistic individuals instead may also be described as “social but awkward,” however they are typically less interested in having friends.  In addition, high-functioning autistic individuals are often delayed in developing speech/language, while persons with Asperger syndrome tend not to have speech/language delays, and their speech is usually described as peculiar, such as being stilted and perseverating on unusual topics.

What are the causes of Autism?

Autism appears to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but it is generally unclear what genetic and what environmental factors play an important role.  About 5-10% of autism cases involve a single severe genetic defect or disorder, such as Fragile X or tuberous sclerosis, and many of those individuals develop the symptoms of autism.  However, 90-95% of cases do not involve a single severe defect, they rather appear to involve a complex set of many genetic variations and environmental factors.
There is no general consensus on what  environmental factors increase the risk of autism.  Since the word “autism” is only a label for people who have a certain set of symptoms, it is very likely that a number of factors that could cause those symptoms.   A few of the suspected environmental causes for which there is some scientific evidence might include: food allergies, pesticides, heavy metal toxicity, excessive use of oral antibiotics, deficiencies in essential nutrients,  and many more.

How are we  preparing for the Future?

Temple Grandin (a woman with ASD who has become one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry) said: “As a person with autism I want to emphasize the importance of developing the child’s talents.  Skills are often uneven in autism, and a child may be good at one thing and poor at another.  I had talent in drawing, and this talent later developed into a career in designing cattle-handling systems for major beef companies.  Too often there is too much emphasis on deficits and not enough emphasis on talents.  Abilities in children with autism will vary greatly, and many individuals will function at a lower level than me.  However, developing talents and improving skills will benefit all.  If a child becomes fixated on trains, then use the great motivation of that fixation to motivate learning other skills.  For example, use a book about trains to teach reading, use calculating the speed of a train to teach math, and encourage an interest in history by studying the history of the railroads.”

What’s the long-Term Prognosis?

Today, most adults with autism are either living at home with their parents or living in a group home.  Some higher-functioning people live in a supported-living situation, needing modest assistance, and some are able to live independently.  Some are able to work, either in volunteer work, sheltered workshops, or private employment, but many do not.  Adults with PDD/NOS and Asperger’s generally are more likely to live independently, and they are more likely to work. Unfortunately, they often have difficulty finding and then maintaining a job.  The major reason for chronic unemployment is not a lack of job skills, but limited social skills.  Thus, it is important to encourage appropriate social skills early on.
In effect, some of the most successful people within the autism spectrum who have good jobs have developed expertise in a specialized skill that people value.  If a person makes him-/herself very good at something, this can help make up for some difficulties with social skills.  Good fields for higher functioning people on the spectrum are architectural drafting, computer programming, language translation, special education, library services and science.  It is likely that some brilliant scientists and musicians have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome (Ledgin, 2002).  The individuals who are most successful often have mentors either in high school, college, or at a place of employment.  Mentors can help channel interests into careers.

What happens to people with ASD through the Lifespan?

In our  culture, autism is often thought of as a childhood condition. This is because until very recently, public attention has been focused primarily on children and the importance of early detection and intervention. However, autism is a lifelong condition, and the available, necessary supports and treatments change as people on the spectrum move through major life phases.

In the past in Italy, it could happen that people with Autism,during the transition from adolescence to adulthood, could get lost in a “diagnostic limbo” that could lead to the migration toward psychiatric pathways or paths more related to disability, but in any case not responsive to the needs and the characteristics of the person.

Then, with the rising diagnostic rate of 1 in 88, and considering that it has been estimated that this trend will continue, it is important that we anticipate the pressing need for supports and programs for people on the spectrum across the lifespan.

How can they learn important skills’ work?

People with autism can learn skills which allow successfully in competitive activities, in jobs or in protected works programs with proper supervision.



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