Autism comes from 'Autos', the Greek word for 'self', and a person with autism is often referred to as someone who lives in a world of their own.
In medical terms, autism is a brain-based developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate, be with other people, and engage in developmentally appropriate behaviours.
Autism is a life-long developmental disorder, and as yet there is no cure. Children do not "outgrow" autism but symptoms may lessen or change as the child develops and receives educational interventions.
Although there are many theories, no one knows the definitive answer to this question.
Research shows that autism can be caused by a variety of conditions that affect brain development. These conditions may occur before, during or after birth.
While the cause or combination of causes of autism is not fully understood, some research suggests a biological problem affecting those parts of the brain that process language and information from the senses. Other research findings suggest that there may be an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain. Genetic factors may sometimes be involved in certain families. In reality what we know is that autism may develop from a combination of several 'causes'.
There is no suggestion that psychological or emotional factors in the environment of the child cause autism.
In 1943, Leo Kanner was the first person to describe and name a pattern of behaviour he observed in a small number of young children, which he termed 'early infantile autism'. A year later, Hans Asperger wrote about different patterns of behaviour in more able older children and adolescents. This form of autism became known as Asperger's Syndrome.
The autism spectrum covers the two groups described by Kanner and Asperger. Many people have a mixture of features and do not fit neatly into either category.
The diagnoses of Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) are all considered under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
In Singapore, it is difficult to provide a statistical figure on the actual number of persons affected by autism. Based on conservative global prevalence rate of 1:167, it is estimated that there are 31,036 persons with autism in Singapore today, based on population figures extracted from the Department of Statistics Yearbook of 2011.
Autism is usually diagnosed within the first three years of life and is four times more common in boys than in girls. However, certain types of autism may not be diagnosed until a child enters primary school, where the main presenting problems may be difficulty with social interaction and anxiety.
To be given a diagnosis of autism, a person must present with a 'Triad' of clinical characteristics in the following areas:
Social Impairment (social interaction)
Communication Impairment (social communication)
Impairment in Flexibility of Thinking (flexibility & imagination)
In addition to the triad of behaviours that characterise autism, other reasons for behaviours commonly associated with the disorder are:
Cognitive learning style
Likes and dislikes
Please refer to the Features of Autism document for more details. It is important to remember that the range of intelluctual ability and skills in people with ASD is considerable. No two people with autism will be the same, adding to the complexity of diagnosis.
For a sample chart on how autism is displayed in different people, please click here.
The diagnosis of autism requires careful assessment by an expert team of qualified professionals. The team is commonly made-up of a developmental paediatrician, psychologist, speech-language therapist and an occupational therapist.
The diagnostic process is usually concerned with determining the:
Presence of unusual developmental features such as repetitive movements, rigidity/inflexibility, sensory problems
Absence of usual developmental features such as social intuition and behaviour, interest in people, imaginative play, and language, and
Co-occurring conditions such as seizures, anxiety
A comprehensive assessment will lead to a definitive diagnosis and recommend suitable therapies for your child. You can seek help at hospitals such as KKH and NUH child development units or approach a private psychologist.
Can people with autism spectrum disorders be helped?
The learning curve for a person with an autism spectrum disorder is different from his/her peers.
Children with autism often require intensive instruction and practice in the core missing skill areas of social interaction, communication, thinking and self-help & independence. Research suggests that early intervention is the key. Specialised early intervention can give people with autism the skills necessary to lead a meaningful and productive life. Choosing intervention practitioners for your child requires careful consideration and review.
Some students with autism will be able to learn new skills with their peers in mainstream school with specialist supports. Others will need to have specialized learning environments to learn in a more individualized way with the time and opportunity to practice and apply the skills they have learnt in many functional ways.
As a person with autism enters adoloscent and adulthood, there is a continued need for support, education, and guidance. Typically, ongoing services are required to help the person with ASD to:
Develop social safety and problem solve everyday experiences
Negotiate higher education options, meet work productivity demands, and achieve vocational skills through job coaching
Develop daily routines, public survival skills, and understand and comply to social rules and expectations
Develop skills in planning, organising, and extending leisure pursuits
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder appear to avoid social contact.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are often keen to make friends but, due to their disability, find this difficult.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder cannot lead independent and successful lives
Given appropriate education, many students with autism spectrum disorder will grow up to be successful contributors to society.
Autism is the result of bad parenting.
Research suggests that autism can be caused by a variety of conditions that affect brain development. There is no clinical evidence that parental behaviour can cause or contribute to the development of autism.
All individuals with autism spectrum disorder have special talent or 'savant' skills.
10% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder may have special abilities in areas like music, art, mathematical calculations, memory and manual dexterity. The majority however, may have areas of high performance that relate to their special interests or obsessions. These skills are often referred to as 'splinter skills', as they are often not consistent with skills in other areas of development.
Autism can be cured.
There is currently no documented cure for autism. Individuals with autism respond very well to structured early intervention, education and vocational placements that focus on the unique learning style of students with autism.
People with autism do not make eye contact.
Contrary to popular belief, many people with autism do make eye contact on their own terms. When they feel relaxed and confident with the communication partner, eye contact can be quite spontaneous. It is NEVER a good idea to force a person with autism to have eye contact with you.
People with autism cannot talk.
Communication is more than talking. Some students with autism will develop speech seemingly effortlessly, but will require help to communicate appropriately with their peers. Others will require assistance to communicate their basic needs and wants, using a combination of words, gestures, and augmentative communication systems such as PECS.
Autism can be outgrown.
Children do not 'outgrow' autism but symptoms may lessen or change as the child develops and receives educational interventions.
People with autism do not have feelings and thus are unable to show affection.
People with autism can and do give affection. However, due to differences in sensory processing and social understanding, the display of affection may appear different from typical people. Understanding and acceptance of these differences is the key.