Autism: The other perception of the world

figures in a bubble. (picture: Hofschläger/pixelio.de)
Autism comes from the Greek term "self admiration". (picture: Hofschläger/pixelio.de)

Autistic disorders are characterised by profound impairment of the whole development, which begin in early childhood and are centered on social interaction and communication disorders. Autism is difficult to diagnose and the causes of the disease are to this day still unclear.

The term "autism" comes from the Greek term "self admiration." A look at the history of the disease indicates that it was the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who first coined the term 1911. He noticed how people with the disorder retreated into their own mental world, a symptom that he also observed in schizophrenic patients.

Early infantile autism and Asperger syndrome

Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger and American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner wrote about two different disorders in 1938 and 1944 respectively: Asperger’s syndrome and early infantile autism. They described both cases as autistic. In current diagnostics differentiation is made between the early infantile autism (Kanner syndrome) and Asperger's syndrome, which often only becomes apparent after the third life year. Today, many scientists also speak of an autism spectrum (autism spectrum disorder or ASD), which signifies the different degrees of severity and symptom patterns. The World Health Organization defines autism in ICD-10, the current international classification system for diseases, as serious developmental disorder For a diagnosis the following abnormalities must be present:

  • Language, verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Social interaction
  • Special interests and activities, due to a unique perception and information processing
Rays of a yellow sun on a blue background. (picture: Stihl/pixelio.de)
Autistic people are often exposed to a flood of sensory impressions. (picture: Stihl/pixelio.de)

A flood of sensory impressions

From a medical point of view autism is primarily a congenital disorder affecting perception processing, which poses massive problems for the concerned individual regarding the processing of environmental stimuli. Through an impairment of the filtering functions, the autistic person is consistently exposed to a flood of sensory impressions, which lead secondarily to impaired social interaction, retreat, and incomprehensible behavior. The severity of autism can range from genius to mental retardation. Asperger's syndrome occurs significantly more in men than women, although it can vary in ration from 4:1 to 8:1.

Autism is not typical

Stereotypical media coverage and reports on autism have strongly shaped the public perception of this disorder. Although extreme cases of silent and deeply inward-looking people exist, autism is noted as a phenomenon with different manifestations and degrees. There is no such thing as a typical case of autism. People with mild autism may have problems in the processing of environmental stimuli and difficulties with social relationships, but they have normal, usually even very high intelligence and have developed above-average language ability.

“Island of genius”

The interests of autistic people are usually limited to certain areas, but some of them show outstanding ability in the field of their special interest, such as in mental arithmetic, drawing, music or memorizing skills. This is known as "island of genius" and those who have this special ability are called savants. 50 percent of known savants are autistic.

A stetoscope lies on an open book. (picture: fries/pixelio.de)
Autism is still difficult to diagnose. (picture: fries/pixelio.de)

Reasons not fully understood

Exactly what causes autism is still unclear to this day. The emergence of several factors certainly play a role. Genetic influences and probably also biological processes before, during and after birth can impair the development of the brain and trigger the autistic disorder. Up until 1960, it was believed that autism was caused by emotional coldness on the part of the mother, by a loveless upbringing, lack of affection, or psychological trauma. This belief has now been refuted. This also applies to the suspicion that environmental toxins or vaccine additives can trigger autism. And this position has been held by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considered since 2006.

Increase of autistic cases

Unreported cases in earlier years have lead to the appearance that the number of autism cases in recent decades is on the rise. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. indicated a rise in cases of autism by 57% between 2002 and 2006. In 2006, 1 out of every 110 eight year old children was affected by autism. However, several factors, which have nothing to do with the disease itself, have been influential for the increase in the number of identified cases. The rise in popularity of kindergartens and the earlier entrance to the education system has increased the chances of discovering autism. In addition parents have become more sensitive regarding the “normal” development of their children. Furthermore, the definition of autism has been broadened so that more children with behavioral problems are considered autistic. There is also much more awareness about the topic and people are also much more informed about autism. So it is also possible that the underreporting was significantly higher in early years and disorders were often not recognised as autism.

Difficult to diagnose

The diagnosis of autism is generally very difficult. The disease is diagnosed primarily on the basis of the above mentioned symptoms, but these may also occur in non-autistic people. Children with a social apathy are not automatically autistic. In general, it is very difficult to make a diagnosis before a child is 18 month old. Early detection of the disorder allows for an individual and optimal treatment from a young age.

Treatment of autistic disorders are not aimed at a cure, something which according to current knowledge is not possible. Autistic people have a live-long disablement and are therefore particularly limited in their social life. There are, however some therapeutic approaches that improve various abnormalities which can thus help with what can otherwise be a difficult social life.

text: pcm
pictures: pixelio.de

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