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Autism Spectrum Disorder

Christopher Gillberg's overview of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) along with frequency, causes and possible features.

Autism

Autism is a disorder/variation of brain function with symptoms that appear early in life, generally before the age of three. Children with autism have problems with social instinct and interaction, communication, imagination and behaviour. Autistic traits persist into adulthood, but vary in severity. Autistic traits without additional impairment is probably quite common in the general population.

Autism manifests itself in difficulties in relating to and communicating with others resulting in social isolation. People with autism can often be perceived as if they live in a world of their own.

Author

Christopher Gillberg

Other terms used to describe autism spectrum disorders are:
Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)
Autism Continuum Disorders

Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome is a condition similar to autism but without clinically significant language delay after the toddler years. Language, however, is still used in a stilted and stereotyped manner. People with Asperger Syndrome usually have no general cognitive delay, meaning their overall IQ is usually in the normal range or above. Some authorities make a distinction between Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism (HFA), but most do not.

Many experts argue that autism and Asperger syndrome are the same disorder, only separated by language difficulty and lower IQ in the former diagnostic group. In the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) the two have been  merged into one category, autism spectrum disorders.

Frequency

About 1% of children and almost as many adults have autism or Asperger syndrome or another autism spectrum disorder. Boys are affected more frequently than girls, but many girls (and women) currently go unrecognized/are misdiagnosed.

Causes

Autism/Asperger syndrome is often hereditary, and a close relative is very often affected by similar (albeit more or less severe) problems. Just as with ADHD, autism may follows in the footsteps of being born very prematurely or of having been exposed to environmental risks in fetal life or during the first few years. In some instances autism can be seen as the extreme end of normally distributed empathy skills in the general population.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterised by difficulties in three main areas. Known as the triad of impairment, they are:
• Socialisation
• Communication
• Imagination

In the DSM-5 the two first impairements have been merged to social interaction and social communication.

Possible features

• Apparent inability to make sense of the world around them
• Lacking imagination/creativity
• Inability to understand other people’s feelings, thoughts, needs
• Obsessive interest in one subject/object
• Repetitive behaviour including repetitive questioning
• Difficulty accepting changes in routine
• Poor planning and organisational skills
• Speech and language difficulties
• Impairment in use of non-verbal communication – eye contact, facial expressions, body posture, gestures
• Strange or unusual reactions to sensory stimuli