Dispelling Myths About Autism
The boy continually flicks his hand while ignoring everything around him. He seems locked in his own world. He suffers from a condition called autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in its journal, Pediatrics, that about one in 91 children has autism spectrum disorder. Autism is more prevalent in boys than girls, with four times as many boys affected than girls. It usually shows up before a child turns 3. A child with autism may not speak or may simply mimic sounds. He or she may be prone to bizarre gestures and often rejects physical contact. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children should be screened for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at 18 months and 24 months, regardless of whether there are any signs or concerns about a child's developmental progress
When psychiatrist Bryna Seigel, Ph.D., began working with children with autism, experts thought that mothers could cause autism by not giving their child enough hugs. She helped dispel this belief by showing that autism was a neurological condition.
Analysis and testing
Dr. Seigel is director of an autism clinic in San Francisco. Each year, she assesses children from hundreds of families. These assessments include intense analysis, observation, and testing. The experience is emotionally draining for her and the families.
As an undergraduate in the early 1970s, Dr. Seigel first worked with children with autism at a state hospital in Queens, N.Y. Most of her patients with autism came from impoverished, dysfunctional families. At the time, autism was considered a result of bad parenting.
Soon after, while working on an internship at the Elwyn Institute in suburban Philadelphia, she first noticed the remarkable similarity in many of the children with autism she had encountered, despite the vast differences in their socioeconomic background.
Dr. Seigel's beliefs were soon echoed by other child development experts, and by the 1980s, autism was classified as a neurological disorder.
Range of severity
Dr. Seigel stresses that autism surfaces in varying degrees of severity and lacks a concrete set of symptoms. Children with autism may develop unusual speech patterns, make little eye contact, or flail their arms, but the most telling characteristic is what she calls a "learning disability of social contact."
She says that Hollywood's portrayal of autism in the movie Rain Man was accurate in its depiction of the character's bizarre social interactions, but off the mark by making him a math genius. In fact, she says, about 70 percent of children with autism also have some form of mental retardation.
Because autism is considered a brain disorder, young children usually are treated with 25 to 40 hours a week of intense behavioral therapy. The idea is to stimulate these children. They don't get the stimulation they need when they engage in endlessly repetitive behaviors or simply stare into space for hours.
Dr. Seigel developed a screening test to help people recognize signs of autism. The goal is to diagnose and begin treatment at an early age to improve the chances of children with autism achieving their potential.