About Autism

What causes autism? How is autism diagnosed? Is autism treatable? Do people with autism also have mental retardation? What is Asperger’s Disorder and how is it different from autism? What is PDD-NOS and how is it different from autism? What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? What is ABA? What causes autism? At this time, the cause of autism is unknown. Current research suggests that autism is a genetic disorder that is possibly triggered by environmental factors. There is no research to support that autism is caused by psychological factors in the child’s environment. For more information on research into the causes of autism, visit www.exploringautism.org. Back to top How is autism diagnosed? Many parents first suspect a problem when their child does not reach developmental milestones, such as speaking his or her first words. However, unlike individuals with mental retardation (who typically show developmental delays in all areas), individuals with autism may acquire age-appropriate skills in one area and have delays or an absence of skills in another area. For example, a child may not be able to imitate waving “bye-bye” yet, but may be able to complete a jigsaw puzzle with ease. Currently, medical tests to diagnose autism are in the experimental phase and are not yet available. Diagnosis must be based on observations of the child’s behavior by a trained diagnostician, usually a psychologist or neurodevelopmental pediatrician. Ideally, a child should be evaluated by an interdisciplinary team (which may include a neurologist or other medical doctor, psychologist, speech/language therapist, learning consultant, social worker or other professional). It is important to distinguish autism from mental retardation, developmental delay and other disorders, since an accurate diagnosis can facilitate referral to the most appropriate and effective education and treatment programs. Back to top Is autism treatable? Early diagnosis and appropriate intervention are vital to the future development of a child with autism. Research indicates that individuals with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized education programs. Teaching must be tailored to the specific needs of the individual and must be delivered in a consistent, comprehensive, and coordinated manner. Programs using well-researched intervention methods, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), are known to be effective in helping children and adults learn new skills and reach their full potential.  Click here for additional information. Back to top Do people with autism also have mental retardation? Many individuals with autism learn more slowly than their peers. Currently, the specific percentage of those with mental retardation is under question.1 Researchers estimate that the majority of individuals with autism and the minority of those with Asperger’s Disorder and PDD-NOS meet these criteria. It is important to note a few things. First, accurately assessing the IQ of individuals with ASDs can be difficult, especially with young children and those with significant communication impairment. Second, results from assessments completed before and after an individual has participated in intervention may differ dramatically. Finally, an IQ score is only a snapshot of a person’s abilities. Therefore, all individuals deserve every opportunity to learn and grow to their fullest potential. Back to top What is Asperger’s Disorder and how is it different from autism? Asperger’s Disorder shares the social deficits and restricted range of interests and behaviors that are associated with autism. However, unlike individuals with autism, those with Asperger’s Disorder do not have a history of substantial cognitive or communication delays (although more specific language difficulties may be present). Back to top What is PDD-NOS and how is it different from autism? PDD-NOS is the abbreviation for the diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Like autism, PDD-NOS is diagnosed through observation of behavior. In contrast to autism, a diagnosis of PDD-NOS is made when a child exhibits only some deficits or an atypical pattern of deficits. It is also applicable if the onset of the disorder (not necessarily the diagnosis) is later than age three. The distinction between a diagnosis of autism and PDD-NOS is often very subtle. Individuals with either diagnosis are likely to benefit from similar approaches to education and treatment. Back to top What is autism spectrum disorder? The three diagnoses — autism, Asperger’s Disorder , and PDD-NOS — are commonly referred to as “autism spectrum disorder,” or ASD. While this label does convey the continuum of ability levels, this term has not been approved as an official diagnosis. Back to top What is ABA? ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis. Some phrases associated with ABA that may be more familiar to you include “behavioral teaching”, “behavioral intervention”, or “behavior ‘mod’ or modification.” ABA is a field devoted to understanding and changing behavior. The term “behavior” does not necessarily imply something bad or unwanted. Abehavior is anything that you do. Some examples of a behavior include tying a shoelace, writing a check, having a tantrum, saying “hello”, answering a question, flapping your hands, or making pancakes. ABA is concerned with both building adaptive behaviors and reducing maladaptive behaviors. ABA relies on carefully defining, observing, and recording information about behaviors to determine appropriate instructional goals. In practicing ABA, you might look at what happened just before the behavior, or what happened just after the behavior. This might help you understand the factors that may have either led to or rewarded the given behavior. You might also measure how long a behavior lasted, or how many times a behavior occurred. ABA relies on observations like these, also called “data,” to evaluate whether or not a teaching technique is working for a particular skill.   For more information about ABA, you can order the COSAC publication “Applied Behavior Analysis and Autism: An Introduction” available from the COSAC Store.   Back to top 1 Edelson, M. G. (2006) Are the majority of children with autism mentally retarded?: A systematic evaluation of the data.  Focus on Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 21, 66-83.