Autism is a developmental disability that usually is diagnosed early in childhood. Children with autism show signs of developmentally delayed social interaction and communication, and they often are fascinated by repetitive activity. Both children and adults with autism have restricted ability to engage in and understand social interactions, and they often have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or interpreting their tone of voice and facial expressions. The effects of autism profoundly affect the life and capabilities of the child as well as his or her family.
The cause of autism is unknown, and it is thought that the development of the condition is likely because of a number of factors rather than one single cause. Studies on identical and non-identical twins show that genetics play an important role in determining whether a child will be autistic. Other factors that have been suggested to play a role include digestive issues, dietary sensitivity or allergies, mercury poisoning and sensitivity to early childhood vaccination.
The effects of autism commonly are divided into three categories: the effects on social communication, the effects on social interaction and the effects on social imagination. The exact nature of the effects of autism can vary quite considerably between different people with autism. For example, some people with autism can become adept at verbal communication, but others never learn to talk. For this reason, the condition is often referred to not as autism, but as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Other autism spectrum disorders include pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger’s syndrome.
In most cases, parents begin to notice the effects of autism in their child by the time he or she reaches the age of 2. At this age, a child with autism is likely to be developmentally delayed in both verbal and nonverbal communication and in social interaction. For example, the child might not respond to his or her name and might not smile or show other signs of facial expression. In addition, the child typically appears to be unimaginative and does not engage in pretend play. Instead, he or she is more likely to be fascinated with stacking or lining up objects and with repetitive body motion.
As the child grows older, the effects of autism tend to become more profound. At school, children with autism typically are unable to engage in play with other children, particularly social or imaginative play, and they are unable to make friends with their peers. In general, a child with autism has trouble initiating and sustaining conversations and does not cope well with interruptions in his or her routine. Often, the child will focus on one or two subjects of interest to the exclusion of all or most others. Some children with autism also display aggressive behavior, particularly when interrupted during a task or routine.
In addition to its effects on the child, the effects of autism on family members also are significant. Parents must quickly adjust to having different expectations for their child and to the fact that their own lives will change dramatically as a result of caring for an autistic child. This impact extends to the autistic child’s siblings, who also must make considerable adjustments. Siblings might feel a wide range of emotions, from sadness to anger, guilt, anxiety, resentment and embarrassment, and the siblings often have difficulty coping with these emotions.