What is autism? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Autism

		

What is autism?

People whose lives are touched by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with many more questions than there are answers.

We don’t know what causes autism, and it can be hard to know what to make of the earliest signs. People not on the spectrum (called “neurotypical” by many in the autism community) find it very difficult to understand how someone with an ASD experiences life. People on the spectrum find those who are neurotypical just as bewildering. Fortunately, there is much we do know about autism spectrum disorders, including how to diagnose it early and effective treatments.

Understanding ASD

What are autism spectrum disorders?

People with an autism spectrum disorder face challenges in three areas: communication, social skills, and a tendency toward restricted, repetitive behaviors. Compared to typical, age-appropriate behavior, the behavioral difficulties of a person with an ASD range from very mild to severe, which is why autism is described as a spectrum.

Disorders on the spectrum
Autism spectrum disorders include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and the rare Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

PPD-NOS: A person with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified exhibits some of the signs of an ASD but with fewer symptoms than those with autism.

Asperger’s syndrome: People with Asperger’s syndrome do not show delays in language development and have typical levels of intelligence, but have challenges with social interactions. They may also develop obsessive interests in topics or objects.

Autism: Those with autism face more severe challenges in all three areas of communication, social skills, and behavior.

Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder: These are the most severe disorders on the spectrum. They are also extremely rare. Unlike classic autism, which is more prevalent in boys, Rett syndrome afflicts girls. It usually involves severe muscle weakness and motor control difficulties. Childhood disintegrative disorder is often more severe than autism and, unlike the other ASDs, does not appear until age 3 or 4, when a child’s development severely regresses.

Common misconceptions

Common misconceptions

Autism is the result of poor parenting.
While the causes of autism spectrum disorders are not well understood, all the evidence so far points to a biological base. Autism is not the result of cold, neglectful, or poor parenting.


Autism can be cured.

Autism is a lifelong condition. Fortunately, there are many treatments for autism spectrum disorders that help people improve their skills, develop well-being, and, in some cases, gain independence.


All people with autism behave the same way.

No two people with autism experience or express it exactly the same way. This is why it is useful to talk about autism disorders as a spectrum.


People with autism are unable to form social relationships.

People with autism spectrum disorders usually have very important relationships in their lives and develop attachments to others. While they do find typical social interactions challenging, they often develop their own ways of expressing themselves.


If a treatment didn’t work for someone else’s child, it’s not going to work for mine.

Every child with an autism spectrum disorder is different, and children with autism will respond differently to various treatment and therapy options.


Children with autism don't need treatment until they start school.

Research and practice have shown that children respond to and benefit from early intervention. Autism can be reliably diagnosed by age 2 and often earlier, which means treatment can start early.

Find Help

Locate mental health and well-being support organizations in your area.