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March 31, 2010

What is Autism?

In the media, the topic of autism has become increasingly prominent over the past few years. Although I do believe that there needs to be more awareness of autism, the hype over autism has put out a tangled mess of myth and misinformation about what autism is, how its caused, and how it can be treated. I'd like to take some time and try to clear up what's true - and what's not - concerning autism. But before I can really do that, I think I need to define what exactly autism is.

Autism is a mental disorder that usually appears in children before the age of three. Autism is characterized by a lack of development in social interaction, language, and behavior. Some of the "warning signs," according to Mayo Clinic, include:
Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear you at times
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Appears unaware of others' feelings
  • Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her "own world"


  • Starts talking later than other children
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Does not make eye contact when making requests
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Can't start a conversation or keep one going
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn't understand how to use them


  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Develops specific routines or rituals
  • Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
  • May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain
One of the tricky things about autism is that it's not a single, easy-to-define thing; it's actually a whole range, known as the autism spectrum disorders. Some children (and adults) have such a mild case that it is never diagnosed, and they live perfectly normal lives. Many who do get diagnosed also fall in this category, and eventually learn the behaviors accepted in society by rote. Only in moderate to severe cases does autism really start to negatively impact a person's life. Some never learn to speak, and have below-average IQ. Others have high-functioning autism; that is, they have above-average intelligence, but often can't communicate what they know well due to their autism. Savants are often autistic; they are brilliant at mathematics or music, but severely socially and/or behaviorally impaired.

Another important point is that not everyone who displays some of these symptoms is autistic. The autism spectrum is very broad, and contains a lot of symptoms. So, there are certainly instances where other things, such as an auditory processing disorder or clinical shyness, may mimic autism. A person I know, for instance, has an auditory processing disorder, and he took a long time to start talking. He often didn't respond to his name or to questions, particularly when he could not see the person talking to him. He has an unusual speech pattern. In extremely crowded and loud environments, he would even sometimes sit in a corner, cover his ears, and rock back and forth. Finally, he is a very talented musician. But he's not autistic. His parents took him to have his hearing checked, and discovered the auditory processing disorder. He wore filters in his ears for a few years while he learned to manage the sound, and now it's impossible to tell that he has any sort of disorder at all.

This post is getting rather long, so I'll wait until April 2nd, a.k.a World Autism Awareness Day, to go through some of the most commonly heard tidbits about autism. Because there is so much information - and misinformation- surrounding the topic of autism, I want to do full justice to sorting out what's true and what's not, so it deserves a post of its own.

UPDATE: The post tackling autism myths, Untangling the Truth about Autism, is now up.