Disability of the Month: April

Autism Spectrum Disorder


Short History


The term autism was first used by Eugen Bleuler in 1908. He used the term to describe a schizophrenic patient who had withdrawn into his own world.  Before the actual discovery of autism, it is presumed that people with autism did exist.


Leo Kanner published his first paper identifying children with autism in 1943.  He identified autism as a distinct neurological condition.  He named the syndrome Early Infantile Autism because it usually appeared sometime during the first three years of life. Before the 1940s, children with autism would have been labeled as emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic, or psychotic. Kanner observed a small sampling of children which led him to the “refrigerator mother” theory. His small sampling of children led him to assume that intellectual parents in the middle and upper class were more likely to show signs of autism. Kanner stressed that the cold, intellectual nature of their parents, especially mothers, contributed to the child having autism.


The idea of a refrigerator mother as the cause of autism continued into the 1960s. A man by the name of Bernard Rimland challenged the psychiatric orthodoxy about the cause of autism. He presented the first solid argument that autism was a biological condition, not an emotional one. While autism being caused by cold, intellectual parents has been debunked, many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are still being blamed today.


Parent blaming was recently exacerbated by a large controversy surrounding ASD. The controversy is centered on whether a link exists between ASD and certain childhood vaccines. Many people have stopped giving their children vaccines because of this belief. Extensive research has been done and no link has been found. There is no reliable study that shows a link between vaccines and ASD.


Who Does Autism Spectrum Disorder Affect?


Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum.  Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is thought to affect more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. Government autistic statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased from 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years.


ASD seems to occur in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group. ASD is also show to have some hereditary link. Families who have one child with ASD have an increased chance of having another child with ASD. A child may be more at risk for ASD if they have fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, or Rett syndrome.


What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?


Autism Spectrum Disorder can be defined as a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders that is characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

While the exact cause of ASD is unknown, researchers are starting to see some potential causes. It is now known that there isn’t just one cause of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes or mutations that seem to be associated with autism. Some other possible causes include advanced parental age at the time of conception (both mom and dad), maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during birth. Some recent research suggests that a woman can reduce the risk by taking prenatal vitamins containing folic acid during the months before and after conception.


Finding Help


Babies develop at their own pace, and a lot of them don’t follow the timelines found in parenting books. However, children with ASD usually show some signs of delayed development within the first year. If you suspect your child may have ASD, talk to your doctor. Treatment seems to be much more effective the earlier it begins.


The first step in diagnosing ASD is usually a questionnaire completed by the parents. If the doctor believes there is enough reason, they will then continue on to a more comprehensive evaluation. This evaluation requires a multidisciplinary team that includes a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, and other medical professionals.


While there is no cure for autism, there are effective treatments. Some of the available treatments include educational and behavioral intervention and medications. While there are some other treatments available, few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Be sure to discuss any possible therapies with a doctor.




National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Mayo Clinic



Autism Speaks


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