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Definitions of Autism Are Changing

  • Melinda Smith


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that one in 88 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism, a developmental brain disorder that the CDC also reports is five times more common in boys than girls. Research shows that intensive behavioral therapy can help autistic children make significant improvements if they are treated early. New approaches are being used to diagnose and treat this still-mysterious disorder.

The Perromat family has three beautiful boys: Lucas, Philip and Thomas. Philip is the middle child. By the time he was a toddler, Kim and Carlos Perromat had already suspected that Philip's failure to make eye contact and his unwillingness to speak were caused by more than just slow development. So they were not really surprised when he was diagnosed with autism.

Carlos says he tried to learn everything he could about the disorder. He believes he wasted a lot of valuable time trying to find the right treatment program for his child.

"It's not a question of lack of information. It's a question of too much. It's impossible to sift through," he said.

Kim and Carlos have been taught to use applied behavior techniques to help Philip identify what he wants.

At first, it was just one word, and even though Philip knew the word for the toy he wanted, he wouldn't say it until he realized it was the only way his parents would give it to him.

The genetic link to autism may be prevalent in more than one male member of the Perromat family. Carlos believes that he and his father, and now perhaps his oldest son Lucas, also have signs of a high-functioning type of autism called Asperger's Syndrome. The youngest boy, Thomas, has shown no symptoms.

Katie Divelbiss of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders says parents should find a way to communicate with their autistic child as soon as possible.

“Teach them how to communicate," said Divelbiss. "That could be using pictures, that could be teaching them how to use hand signs, that could be a one word or a 'ugh' - one utterance."

For decades, autism was categorized incorrectly as a form of childhood schizophrenia, and in recent years as a diverse spectrum of developmental brain disorders. Doctor Susan Hyman of the American Academy of Pediatrics says the definitions of autism are changing because the difference between disorders on that spectrum can be hard to distinguish.

"It's better to think of it as a single spectrum or a singular category with different degrees of intensity and different other factors that impact how significant the diagnosis is," said Hyman.

Professor Roy Richard Grinker is a recognized authority on autism whose own daughter was diagnosed with the disorder in 1994. Back then, Grinker says, there was little awareness or understanding of autism in the United States. That has changed, he says.

"I don't know that the treatments for autism today are that much different than the treatments for autism back in 1994 or 1995, except for this: Society understands autism. Society gets it. Autism is no longer invisible," said Grinker.

The National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, has a complete guide for parents who want to know more about autism, A Parent’s Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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