What is Autism Spectrum Disorder or Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Autism are both common terms used for a group of complex neuro-developmental disorders. ASD is primarily characterized by deficits in communication and social interactions and unusualbehavior and interests (1). It impacts the nervous system and affects the overall cognitive, emotional, social and physical health of the affected individual. The signs and symptoms of autism are typically noticed in the first three years of life. Autism affects the way a child relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people. Subsequently, this grossly impacts development in the areas of daily functioning and social interaction. Mental capacities may be compromised due to atypical (sub normal) functioning of some areas of the brain. Hence, children with Autism have special needs that must be addressed differently.
Autism is usually diagnosed in early childhood and despite extensive studies, the exact cause of Autism remains elusive. However, with increased awareness, rapidly evolving technology and ever-growing research, it is now understood that an intricate interplay of genetics and environmental factors may be responsible for the onset of Autism. Research has established that early diagnosis and intervention, along with access to appropriate support lead to significantly improved outcomes. When Autism is detected and treated early, disruptive behaviors can be minimized and costs associated with treatment can be reduced significantly.
History of Autism
The root of the term “autism” is derived from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self”.
Paul Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, first coined the term in 1911 (2). He used it to describe a subset of schizophrenic patients who seemed to be self- absorbed and withdrawn. As time passed, our thinking and understanding of autism has evolved dramatically. An analysis of the description of behavior traits observed in several early documented cases suggests that these are in fact cases of what we now recognize as Autism. One famous and well documented example of this would be the story of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, who was found naked in a French forest (2). Victor did not understand language and would eat only half-burned or roasted potatoes, walnuts and raw chestnuts (3). Some even believed that he had been reared by wolves. The French physician Dr. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard took Victor under his care and brought him to Paris. Dr. Itard spent several years trying to help Victor to integrate into human society and teaching him language. He was not completely successful as Victor only learned some French words, but never fully understood the language. However, there was an improvement in Victor’s fine motor skills and communication (3). He also developed friendship with his caregivers. It is now known that Victor may have been autistic and whoever he lived with was unable to understand him. Hence, although Autism seems to be a new condition, a look at its history suggests that it may have always existed..
Dr. Leo Kanner (pronounced “conner”) and Dr. Hans Asperger have played the most crucial roles in introducing Autism to the world. In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner, an Austrian psychiatrist working at Johns Hopkins Hospital, published a paper describing 11 children who displayed a “strong desire of being alone”, had a “resistance to change” or a “need for sameness” (4). He introduced the term “early infantile autism” to describe his observations. A year later, Dr. Hans Asperger, also an Austrian psychiatrist, described similar characteristics in a group of children he was treating. It is was eventually accepted as a diagnosis in 1981.
Prevalence of Autism
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide, 1 in 160 children has an ASD. This suggests that approximately 1% of the world population has ASD. The prevalence of Autism varies considerably from country to country. No factors have been identified to contribute to the increased prevalence in different countries.
The studies have picked up a steep rise in the prevalence of autism.
Studies have also shown that boys are 5 times more likely to develop Autism than girls.
1. Lord, C., Cook, E. H., Leventhal, B. L., & Amaral, D. G. (2013). Autism spectrum disorders. Autism: The Science of Mental Health, 28(2), 217.
2. Feinstein, A. (2011). A history of autism: Conversations with the pioneers. John Wiley & Sons.
3. Starostina, N. (2016). Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (c. 1788 – 1828), and the Rise of Special Education in Modern France,
4. Baron-Cohen, S. (2015). Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, and the discovery of autism. The Lancet, 386(10001), 1329-1330.
5. Kanner, L. (1943), Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, Nervous Child, 2, pp.217-250.
6. Kanner, L. (1946), Irrelevant and Metaphorical Language in Early Infantile Autism, American Journal of Psychiatry, 103, pp.242-246.
7. Kanner, L. & Eisenberg, L. (1956), Early Infantile Autism 1943-1955, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 26, pp.55-65.
8. Bender, L. (1982), In Memoriam Leo Kanner, MD June 13, 1894–April 4, 1981, J Am Acad Child Psychiatry 21(1): 88-89.
9. Asperger, H. (1944), Die ‘Autistischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter, Archiv fur Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, pp.76-136.
10. Asperger, H. (1968), Zur Differentialdiagnose des Kindlichen Autismus, Acta paedopsychiatrica, 35, pp.136-145.
11. Asperger, H. (1979), Problems of Infantile Autism, Communication, 13, pp.45-52