Autism is a mental disorder. It is characterized by a marked shortage of personal, social and other aspects of the development and communication skills. It is a serious mental disorder and an extreme form of self-isolation. Autism is a lifelong disease. It typically appears during the first four years of life. It is characterized by self-insulation, all-absorbing passion for uniformity, the inability to adopt common behaviors in the society and contact or communicate with other people. Often, children with autism experience retardation in speech development. Children with autism are usually physically well-built and very attractive. Most children with autism are absolutely normal in appearance. Nevertheless, their behavior is very different from that of children of the same age. Autistics can sit for hours staring into space and not paying attention to others. Children are engaged in repetitive actions with objects without apparent purpose (for example, they can twist something in their hands). They are often exposed to inexplicable and uncontrollable tantrums. A child with autism is described as a person, who lives in a glassy bowl, or in his/her own world (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
The term autism was introduced by E. Bleuler in 1912 to refer to a special kind of thinking, which is regulated by the emotional needs of the person. The syndrome of infantile autism as a distinct clinical unit was first isolated by L. Kanner in 1943. He introduced the term into medical practice, after watching eleven young patients. However, at that time, many physicians thought that autism was the initial symptom of an adult schizophrenia. Therefore, children were treated as patients with schizophrenia. Several years ago, the only solution was to place these children in special boarding schools for the mentally retarded, which did more harm than good (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
There are some myths and misconceptions about autism. The first myth is that all autistics are the same. Some people believe that all of them think in pictures, and all have special skills or unusual ability in a particular area. The second myth is that autism is a childhood disease. However, all children grow up, and an adult autistic grows from an autistic child. Some people also believe that the ability and potential of autistics is very limited. That is not true, as not all people suffering from this disease have severe intellectual disturbances and problems with speech (Alderson, 2011).
Autism is considered separately from childhood schizophrenia and other serious childhood diseases, including congenital deafness, mental retardation and disorders of speech development. Autism is a very serious childhood mental disorder. It can be the first sign of developing schizophrenia. The ability to play develops badly. Toys are used for inappropriate stereotypical manipulation, not relevant to the purposes for which they are intended. Currently, the cause of autism is unknown. However, the scientists suppose, there can be several possible causes. It is known that autism is associated with abnormalities in the structure of the brain, resulting in impaired development of cognitive, social and communication skills and disturbance of the sensory perception. Heredity and organic disorders of the central nervous system at different stages - in uteri, at birth or during early childhood, may be the cause of autism. Autism can result from another disease. In some cases, it appears as a manifestation of the current illness. Some experts believe that environmental factors, for example, the unfavorable situation in the family can provoke autism (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It is responsible for the normal pain sensitivity. It is involved in the regulation of vascular tone and mechanisms of the hypothalamic regulation of the pituitary hormonal function. Serotonin is best known as the “hormone of joy”. It is known that the lack of it leads to low mood and loss of interest in life. People with depression have the lack of this hormone. However, recently, scientists discovered a “dark side” of this neurotransmitter. Its excess may provoke the development of autism. There are reports that people with autism have a high level of this neurotransmitter. This occurs as a result of a rare variant of the serotonin transporter gene, which regulates the reuptake of serotonin cells. Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that is associated with autism. People with this illness have a weakened nervous activity in the part of the brain that is responsible for recognizing features of the interlocutor. In patients with autism, the activity of acetylcholine is reduced. This neurotransmitter sending jitters in the fusiform gyrus is responsible for recognizing features of the human face. Scientists believe that avoiding the direct view on the face of another person is a distinctive symptom of autism (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
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Autism is difficult to diagnose, especially for children up to three years. However, this mental disorder has a number of symptoms that parents need to know. Parents should be alert when a child refuses from the tactile contact, prefers to be alone, avoids the eye contact, does not respond to his/her name, has no interest to the world, uses another person as an inanimate object, has strange gestures and unusual sensory responses to touch, voice and sound. Autism usually first appears around the age of 15 months and is fully formed to 3-5 years. Sick children have certain behavioral changes. A child plays strange games. He/she can do the same things for a couple of hours. A kid does not accept other people and things around. He/she is afraid of changes and does not like new things. A child does not imitate adults. An autist has a set of rituals that he/she strictly adheres to. He/she often repeats the same actions or words, which are a great relief for a child. Children with autism have very frequent outbursts of rage and aggression. Children can bite and scratch themselves and other people (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
There are no medical tests to diagnose autism. Autism is diagnosed by the presence or absence of certain behavioral characteristics. To do this, a doctor carefully studies the history of the development of the child and analysis of the data history. A doctor conducts a survey of parent’s health and lifestyle, as well as other people involved in the child's life. Autism should be diagnosed by a team of specialists, including a psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, therapist, pediatrician and other experts with the experience of working with autistic children. The examination of the child with suspected autism should be conducted in conditions as close to his/her usual way of life as possible. The criteria of the international classification of mental disorders and diseases of ICD-10 and DSM-4 are in the basis of the diagnosing of autism. Standardized surveys of parents or relatives and the scale of observations to evaluate certain behavioral symptoms more accurately and efficiently are additional aids to determine the type of pathology. There are a number of questionnaires, scales and methods of observation for the diagnosis of early infantile autism: Autism Diagnostic Interview – ADI-R, Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – ADOS, Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic – ADOS-G, Childhood Autism Rating Scale – CARS and some others. Diagnostic tables and questionnaires provide information on the scope of communication, perception, fine motor skills, intellectual development, language, social skills and behavior. Methods of hardware diagnostic of autism provide information on the status and functioning of the brain and cardio-vascular system: electroencephalography, rheoencephalography, echoencephalography, MRI, CAT and ECG (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
In conclusion, there are no methods to cure autism completely. However, statistics show that early psychological and pedagogical intervention, the correction in centers for children with special needs, a specially organized living space in the house, supported by individual drug treatment and diet, can significantly improve child development, increase the quality of autistic life and help realize child’s potential. Speech therapy, behavior modification, sensory-motor therapy, auditory integration training, music therapy and diet are effective techniques. Zoo therapy: horse riding and communicating with dolphins became very popular nowadays (Veague, Collins & Levitt, 2009).
The most difficult part for the development and training of an autistic child is performed by parents. The effectiveness of methods of correction is possible only with their systematic use in a home environment and careful attention to sick children. The success of the social adaptation of an autistic child, engaged in the correctional group, is closely linked with common work of the parents, physician, psychologist and the teacher. Autism is an incurable disease. However, sometimes, the diagnosis hides a genius. Autistic child is a puzzle. Parents have to understand, accept, and try to adapt a child to the world, developing his/her abilities (Alderson, 2011).