What Is Autism?

Parents have so many questions about autism. Scientists have studied autism for many years, but we still have a lot of unanswered questions.

By Dr. Robert B. Golenbock / CPM

Parents have so many questions about autism. Scientists have studied autism for many years, but we still have a lot of unanswered questions. 

What is autism? It is a disorder of development characterized by difficulty with social interactions and communication. The problem with diagnosing autism is that the severity can vary a great deal.  That's why it's often called “autism spectrum disorder.” Sometimes, we can identify children by the age of 9 months because they connect emotionally. Others may be identified because their language progress is delayed as toddlers or they have a lack of empathy (not understanding other people's feelings). Sometimes, these children are prone to emotional outbursts or repetitive behaviors like flapping their hands. Their senses are often easily stimulated. Lights, noise, smells, and even textures that we consider non-offensive background sensations can be very disturbing to children with autism. 

In truth, we still haven't defined autism. We can talk about the cause of many illnesses, and understanding the reason for an illness has helped us develop treatments and cures. Autism, however, still defies an explanation. We know that some – maybe most – of the cases have genetic causes, but otherwise why some children have it and others don't is still a mystery. And we certainly don't know why some cases are more severe than others although we think we may be talking about different disorders with similar symptoms. Researchers are also studying the effect of toxic substances on pregnant women as well. 

We know a lot about what doesn't cause autism. When the disorder was fist described, researchers thought that the behavior and the attitude of the mother was a primary factor in the child's development. This hypothesis was rejected very early. Another terrible hypothesis actually led to the death of infants. A man in England falsified data to make it look like a vaccination caused autism. In spite of subsequent research that completely refuted this claim, many parents stopped giving vaccines, and children died from illnesses that had previously been almost wiped out. 

Is there more autism now? It may seem that way, but pediatricians are more than ever using special questionnaires on every child so that the diagnosis is not missed. It seems like a lot of behaviors that were misdiagnosed are now being correctly assigned to the autistic spectrum. 

Finally, we know that a diagnosis of autism is not the end of the story. Early therapy has been very effective in many cases. We like to think of autism as a work in progress. In some cases children have outgrown their diagnosis. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee a cure yet, but children have improved markedly with the proper therapy. It is important for parents to be vigilant for abnormal social and speech progress, to be understanding if their child is lagging behind, and to be insistent on getting proper evaluation and treatment if they are suspicious of an abnormality. 

Robert B. Golenbock, MD, is presently retired. He has cared for children in the Danbury area for 43 years, including at the Center for Pediatric Medicine. The CPM is located at 107 Newtown Rd #1D, Danbury, CT 06810. For more information, please call (203) 790-0822 or visit https://centerforpediatricmedct.com.