Understanding Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders

17th October 2023

What is autism?
How children are effected.
What can help?

Autism. staking cans.
Copyright (c) 2003 by Nancy J Price.

Autism is a neurological condition characterized by impairments in social, communicative and behavioral development. It is three times as common, like ADHD, in boys. The level of severity varies and the problem of autism is international in scope. It has been described as a "public health concern."

In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism. A German scientist, about the same time, labeled a milder form of the disorder which became known as Asperger syndrome. These are two the most common of the disorders known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), or as autism spectrum disorders.

The five PDD disorders are autism, Asperger syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (the latter two being less common that the first two). Also, a 5th is labeled as PDD-NOS, that is pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, a disorder that does not meet the specific criteria for the other commonly diagnosed disorders.

At times it takes discernment on the part of parents and treatment teams, psychologists and professionals in determining whether a child has ADHD, autism, or some other disorder.

Rett syndrome occurs in one out of 10,000 to 15,000 children, exclusively females, usually developing sometime between 6 and 18 months with autism-like symptoms. For a childl who has Rett Syndrome, her mental and social development regresses and she no longer responds to her parents, pulling away from any social contact. Some symptoms are: if she has been talking, she stops, she has difficulty controlling her feet, wringing her hands.


Experiences Recently the girlfriend of actor Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, released the book "Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism," about her son, Evan, and his progress in coming out of autism, as well as about Carey's attentiveness to him and the role that she felt that had in his partial recovery. Evan is 5-years-old (November 2007) Evan's experience here.

Stories such as this do give a ray of hope to parents whose children are autistic and should encourage them to take whatever postitives steps they can to work with their children to see what might be of help. For some children, full recovery might not be possible, for others, that might be hope for a better life through therapy and lifestyle adjustments.

A boy named Eric was diagnosed with autism. He couldn't make eye contact and his parents were faced with a choice of using medication or behavioral therapy. After a short but not good experience with medication, they found that behavioral therapy was effective in helping Eric to open up. Within a short time he was making eye contact and engaging in productive educational activities.

His therapist Eve Band, and Owning Mills psychologist, states concerning autism, that many autistic children are "highly visual." In teaching or working with autistic children, she states, "when you support something verbal with something visual that he creates, it helps him rework, process and remember the information."

There are specialized schools within the public school system for autistic children. Such classes consist of few students with a high ratio of teachers and students.


While it is generally held by many authorities that autism is not significantly helped, or is not helped at all, through the use of medications, psychiatric medications are something that is being routinely prescribed to control symptoms associated with autism in many situations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states accurately, "No medication can cure ASDs or treat the core symptoms that make up the disorder"that is, communication, social, and repetitive or unusual behaviors."Medications are used in autism, at times, as behavioral control. That is, children in school may be difficult to deal with, at times violent, and medication is preferred by school staff as a way of keeping a child, or young adult, who is autistic, more subdued. In such cases, the medications that are used are most often very tranquilizing. This does produce the desired affect of subduind a difficult to control child or teen, but it does raise some ethical questions as well. P Additionally, medication is such, that, because core situations may not be being addressed, if a parent tries to take a child off of the medications in the future, an autistic child or teen, an adult as well, can be worse off in terms of behavior, than before starting on the medication.Because schools will not care for a child or teen all of his or her life, but it is more likely that parents and guardians will shoulder that responsibility, medication is a decision that parents must research and make, rather than delegate that responsibility to others, even if others might be more knowledgable or educated. A parent should never be made to feel pressured to put his or her child on meds. Rather, a rational, balanced and intelligent decision needs to be made.

At times, children with autism might also suffer from depression or from such difficulties as seizures, which are said to effect 1 in 4 who have some form of autism. Antidepressants have been prescribed for such depressed children, and in the case of seizures, the use of anticonvulsants. However, the whole spectrum of psychiatric drugs are also being experimented with in treating symptoms of autism.

Each professional might hold a different opinion. Parents, though, should realize that medications for autism, at best, might help to improve some of the symptoms for a limited time, but also, psychiatric medication in general also have many difficulties and side effects associated with them, as described in other sections of this website. This can especially be true for children.

The thought, then, expressed here, and by a number of other professionals and professional organizations is to use medications sparingly, or not at all. Positive therapies, educational remediation and lifestyle changes or adjustments will probably work just as well, if not much better than medications in the case of autism and its related disorders. Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, feels that about 10% of children with autism can fully or partially recover with therapy.

Another authoritative source states that approximatly 1/3 of those who receive intensive therapy, especially from preschool years, can achieve marked improvement, another 1/3 can be helped somewhat and the other third might night make much progress at all. Children who are effected the most by the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders are those who will be least likely to achieve any marked improvement, although there are always exceptions.

It therapy is accompanied by attention to positive lifestyle changes at home, this can help to improve the ratios of children who are helped to recover from autism and similar disorders. (As described below.)

These are some symptoms in infants:

  • No big smiles or other joyful expressions by six months.
  • No communicative sharing with parents, smiles or reactions by 9 months.
  • No gestures towards parents by 12 months: pointing, reaching, waving.
  • No babbling by 12 months or words by 16 months.
  • No meaningful phrases with own volition by 24 months.
  • Loss of speech or social skills at any age.
  • Repetitive Behavior
  • Some additional symptoms of autism are a child or toddler becoming silent, withdrawn, self-abusive or indifferent to social overtures.

A child might have a tendency to "lose control", especially when they are in a strange or overwhelming environment or when they are angry or frustrated. They might beak this, attack others, or hurt themselves. Some bang their head ins frustration or pull their hair bite their arms.

Some children with ASD remain mute throughout their lives. Others might be delayed, only learning to speak at 5-9 years old. Some might use only sign language later in their development.


Some ASD children parrot what they hear, repeating the words just spoken to them.


Some children speak in a high-pitched, song-song, or in a flat, robotic voice.


As autistic children become teenagers, they deal with the same issues of their developing bodies and sexuality that other children deal with. Some children also become increasingly aware that they are different than other children and this can lead to depression.

Mercury and Vaccinations

There is much research being done as to the causes of autism disorders but as of now, there are not definite answers. There is controversy over the effects of childhood vaccines, the presence of a mercury-rich preservative, called thimerosal, which some parents feel is responsible for autism. Today, the preservative is no longer found in routine childhood vaccines, but is used in some flu shots.

Scientific studies have not found a causal relationship between childhood vaccines and autism, although some parents still feel strongly that this is the case. So it has become an emotional issue in the field of autism.

So while much research has been done at the present time, special education and positive involvement by parents, some lifestyle changes, and a number of therapies, are aobut the most definite answers for parents who have children with autism.

Television and Children's Cartoons, Movies

Some of the other principles on this site may be of help for parents with children who have autism as well. Many children with autism are highly visual. Their minds might process information differently than other children, and might be susceptible to sensory overload much more easily than children without a disorder. The stimulation of television and television cartoons might be something that effects the mind of some children, and parents m ight consider doing without television and movies as entertainment for children with autism.

Video games, in a way, mirror the thinking that is characteristic of autism, repititive, sudden stops and starts, for some children. Children in general easily become obsessed and addicted to video games, and some experiences of children with autism, show how the autistic mind can become, like with other children, obsessed with video games.

Some autistic children can become obesessed with numbers, certain subjects in science, the functioning of a specific mechanical device such as a vacume cleaner. The autistic child needs help to "come out of his shell," in some cases, as autism is associated with social withdrawal in some cases.

The electronic world has a tendency for even children without a disorder to crawl into their shell, so, this can be especially true of autistic children. Autistic chidlren also can overeact to loud or sudden noises, it being unbearable for them. TV and movies are filled with such sounds, as well as cartoon violence. This can contribute to sensory overload and make it more difficult for a child with one of the autism spectrum disorders to make progress.

This has been especially so in the past 28 years, since Sesame Street introduced the first children's programming. It was designed to be "attention grabbing" through rapidly changing "sound bite" type of visual effects. This is true of children's cartoons today, many of which are also overtly violent or have underlying violence. e.g. Bugs Bunny, with fast-paced, or underlying violence. 8 out of 10 Saturday cartoon characters are said to be violent in one 1994 survey.

And children's program in the past few years has become excessively violent as well as what children are being exposed to through parents and older siblings, programming not necessarily designed for children.

One child with a form of autism was especially attracted to Monsters Inc., and while such children's movies can keep children busy for an hour or two, it might also contribute to confusion in the mind of a child with autism, who might have a more difficult time seperating reality and fantasy. So attention to this might be one area where children could benefit from sensory stimulation that is more positive and gentle in nature.

Art and Gentle Music

Some educational organizations sponsor art summer camps, which some teachers involved in special education of children with special needs feel is of value in helping autistic children to open up and learn to focus. One such teacher related the story of an autistic boy he taught who he felt benefited from art therapy and who went on to hold a full time job when he grew up. The teacher felt that the art was helpful for the boy to learn to focus. (Paterson, NJ).

Additionally, gentle music in the house or car is of value, rather than highly stimulating music which might also be more than the mind can handle for a child with autism. Some special education classes feature only gentle classical music, which seems to give the children more peace of mind.

* A neurologist or developmental specialist such as a child psychologist should diagnosis autism in children.


is also an area of consideration with autism. Attention to spiritual needs of both parents and children is of importance, as is mental and spiritual hygiene. This can help parents to be able to handle the many pressures that come with having an autistic child, to respond positively, as well as helping some autistic children as well. Reading positive and loving, compassionate stories can help some children.


Regular exercise for autistic children is also of value, as well as attention to a healthy diet. In one school for handicapped children in Newark, NJ, a swimming pool is part of the program, within the school premises, that provides healthy and gentle stimulation and recreation for autistic children. If it is possible for an autistic child to be taken for regular walks in the park, this also can be of value and calming for the mind.


1. Autism Information Center, Treatment and Therapy (March 7, 2007).Department of health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.htm

2. Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse
Behavioral modification vs. medicine
http://caica.org/NEWS%20Autism%20Behavior%20Mod.htm Off-site link

3. Talk About Curing Autism
Behavior and teaching methods.
http://www.talkaboutcuringautism.org/behavior/socialization.htmOff-site link
Talk About Curing Autism is a one stop portal for autism related issues.

4. Talk About Curing Autism
Children with autism get day in court
by Andrew Bridges, AP
http://www.talkaboutcuringautism.org/index.htm?gclid=CK3cn4SKlo8CFSBMGgodViSJewOff-site link

5. Autism Spectrum Disorders Pervasive Developmental Disorders Department of Health and Human Services Naqtional Institute of Health. NIMH. (2004)