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Autism, is it really debilitating?

Updated on November 8, 2011

Autism, is it really debilitating?

Are people with autism hopeless individuals who can’t function in society? In the past some medical professionals might have said so. Autism, a term coined by Swiss psychiatrist Paul Bleuler (1857-1939), is from the Greek words autos (self) and ismos (of state). It was first described and diagnosed by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. Autism is a disorder of neural development that affects social interaction and communication. Children with autism are also confined to repetitive actions such as lining items up, flapping of hands, repeating inane phrases, and a lack of social understanding. These symptoms generally start to show within the first two years of the child’s life. In the present day doctors generally know how to spot the signs of autism early in a child’s development. However there was not always an understanding of autism.

Autism is a disease that has puzzled scientists for decades because of the wide range of symptoms and no traceable causes. There are several types of autism, however the two most common forms are Kanner’s syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome. While many people have Asperger’s, Kanner syndrome is the type of autism that has the classic autistic symptoms. In most cases, babies born with autism develop normally until a certain age, which most often is two or three years old. The first signs of autism are delayed speech, severe tantrums, and lack of communication. In Kanner’s syndrome, a child’s mind focuses on one thing. They are deeply disconnected from reality and cannot emit any emotion. They are in their “own little world”, and other outside sources deeply affect them such as bright lights and signs. These children can recall specific factual events, such as baseball statistics of every player ever to play, yet do not feel any emotion. They are low-functioning, however they almost always have normal IQs. Children with this type of autism are extremely withdrawn from others, and do not interact even with their closest family members. Another key symptom of Kanner’s autism is a child’s rigid behavior. Any type of change to a routine or ritual is unacceptable to sufferers of autism. These children have extreme obsessions with one object, and will not change this obsession until they are ready in their mind to do so.

Asperger’s syndrome on the other hand has many less dire affects on a child than Kanner’s syndrome. The most common symptoms are lack of empathy, awkwardness in social situations, delayed speech, avoidance of eye contact, rigidity, and lack of interest in many situations. They also have difficulty reading other people’s behavior. However, children with Asperger’s can lead a normal life as high-functioning adults, and even excel to extraordinary levels in specific fields that they gravitate towards. One notable person with Asperger’s syndrome is actor, comedian, screenwriter Dan Aykroyd.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no physical tests used to diagnose autism. As result of this, most physicians diagnose autism through observation of the child as well as behavioral examination. In order to be diagnosed, a child must have at least six symptoms under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – V. After they are diagnosed, the parents need to figure out what kind of treatment to proceed with.

As of present, there is no definitive cause of autism, however there is a huge controversy surrounding the origins of this syndrome. There are several factors that are being studied, however the two largest arguments for cause are genetic and environmental. Let’s start off with the argument for genetics. First of all, autism is 90% inherited from the genes, according to studies. Tests prove that autism does run in families, especially in twins. There have also been reports that genetic mutation causes autism as result of abnormal brain sensory neurons. These neurons are supposed to react in the synapse of a nerve cell, however many scientists believe that there is a much less of this activity going on in the brain. Although supported by many, there is not anything conclusive about these findings.

Another important probable cause of autism is environmental factors. Exposure to chemical pollutants and pesticides could alter a baby’s brain structure, and therefore cause autism. In the past Kanner referred to the notion of a “refrigerator mother”. He believed that autism was caused by the handling of an infant by their mother shortly after birth. There might be a link, according to some psychologists, that there might be an emotional connection missing between mother and child. However there have been studies that suggest that this is not the case. The goals of this research were to identify which psychopathologies are common in parents of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) and to explore competing hypotheses regarding mechanisms contributing to this risk. By comparing rates of psychopathology in mothers and fathers of children with ASD to rates of psychopathology in parents of typically developing children, this study examined whether increased risk for psychopathology was likely related to genetics or to the burden of caring for a child with a disability. Participants were 269 parents of children with ASD and 446 parents of typically developing children. Mothers and fathers of children with ASD reported significantly more depression, interpersonal sensitivity, paranoid ideation, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The pattern of findings suggests that genetic factors, as opposed to care giving demands, may contribute to the risk for psychopathology in parents of children with ASD(Hodge, Danelle, Charles D. Hoffman, and Dwight P. Sweeney. "Increased Psychopathology in Parents of Children with Autism: Genetic Liability or Burden of Caregiving?" Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities 23.3 (2011): 227+. Health Reference Center Academic . Web. 30 May 2011).


A controversy that has received major media coverage is the notion that there is a connection between the recent spike in autism in the late 1980s early 1990s and the expansion of the influenza vaccine as well as in the measles, rubella, and mumps vaccines to be given to infants. Researchers claimed in 2007 that the mercury derived compound thimerosal, which is used as a preservative in the flu vaccine is the reason for the rise in autistic children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) thimerosal is not harmful in small amounts. However as a precautionary measure it is currently being phased out of vaccines in the United States and the European Union. There has even been a special Court Of Law created surrounding this issue, “Vaccine Court” or the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). One such case picked up by the VICP was Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services. The case was a 12 year old girl diagnosed with autism who had received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines when she was an infant. It was the first to be heard of the 4,800 petitions filed by families of children with autism(Stewart, Alexandra M.New England Journal of Medicine; 6/11/2009, Vol. 360 Issue 24, p2498-2500, 3p, 1 Diagram).

Children with autism can be very challenging to keep motivated and engaged in the classroom. One successful strategy for catching their attention is previewing. Previewing is the introduction of social or motor skills that will be practiced before the student arrives at class. A prime example of how previewing works for the autistic student is David’s story. David is a third-grade student, has personality characteristics that resemble those of other students with autism. He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. David seemed to have issue with sharing equipment with other students, waiting his turn, and would throw fits and cry when jogging as other students passed him. He also had difficulties sitting still, and listening to directions. Ms. Eaton, David’s physical education teacher for four years understood David’s problems. She knew that something had to be done that would encourage David’s participation in class and the appropriate way to interact with students. Ms. Eaton had developed “social stories” for students with autism. She developed two social stories for David.

Social story 1

No Passing During Jogging

Usually when we go to physical education class, Mrs. Eaton has us line up on the black line. Then we jog around the gym. Mrs. Eaton likes it when we don't pass each other. Sometimes kids pass me when we are jogging, and I don't like that. When I get mad, I need to remember that Mrs. Eaton will deal with the kids who are not following the rules.

Social story 2

Taking a 1-2-3 Drink

Usually when we are done jogging for two minutes, we get a drink of water at the fountain in the gym. Mrs. Eaton likes it when we take a quick, l-2-3-second drink. Sometimes kids take longer than a 1-2-3 count for drinks. When I get upset that they are taking longer drinks, I need to remember that Mrs. Eaton will speak to the kids who are taking too long.

Every morning Ms. Eaton would give David one of these stories to read and discuss with her before class. While it did work with those specific situations David still had trouble getting along with the other students. Ms. Eaton decided David as well as the other students might benefit from a discussion about what would happen in class prior to their meeting. Ms. Eaton contacted the classroom teacher to see if she would be willing to allow her to talk to the class about upcoming physical education activities. After a few weeks David showed major signs of improvement in class. Not only did he excel, but the other students were also more willing to show him support when he was having a difficult time.(Michelle Grenier and Pat YeatonJOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 82.1 (Jan 2011): p28(6). (3138 words).


In conclusion autism is not necessarily a life sentence of being a shut-in, or a mental patient, or just some dead-end weirdo, condemned to live a menial life. Many autistic people have shown to be very talented and successful people like Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, and Heather Kuzmich just to name a few. People with autism are very special individuals and I believe that if they are given a chance some can be successful in all walks of life. Unfortunately even now we are just scratching the surface of understanding what causes autism, and the true nature of the autistic mind. People with autism if they achieve adeptness in their chosen field, can unlock extraordinary human potential. It has been proven before with many notable figures like the ones mentioned above and I believe we will see more in the years to come.


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    • profile image

      Secret 13 months ago

      Thanks! By the way I have a great emotional connection to my mother and I am have autism

    • ChrisIndellicati profile image

      ChrisIndellicati 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks melbel :)

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Palen 6 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Wow! This hub is jam-packed with information! I heard about the whole vaccine debate with thimerosal and agree with the CDC on it. Also, part of the rise in autism can be attributed to the loosening of the terms of "what autism is." Great hub!

    • ChrisIndellicati profile image

      ChrisIndellicati 6 years ago from New York, NY

      Thanks it was actually a paper I wrote for school about autism.

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      fashion 6 years ago

      Really informative hub.well done