Autism is a developmental disorder that results in a cluster of abnormal behaviour, affecting children from birth or the early months of life. It results in delay in, and deviance from, the normal patterns of development. These occur in three areas of behaviour:
• Social relationships and interactions
• Language and communication
• Activities and interests.
Although autism is probably present from birth, or very soon after, its nature means that the specific disorders of developmental progression will not necessarily be apparent for many months or even years.
Autism refers to damage in certain part of the brain which may or may not be repaired as the child gets older. The factors responsible for autism, though not conclusively proved, may include:
• Genetic or chromosomal abnormality
• Viral agents
• Metabolic disorders
• Immune intolerance
• Perinatal anoxia.
As with any child with special needs, early identification of autism is essential to allow interventions to be implemented. With autism, this need to be started before deviation and delay from the normal pattern of development has progressed too far. Children with autism often display a characteristic need for sameness and structure. Early recognition of the condition also allows families to receive advice and support to help them adjust and respond to the child's difficulties.
It is possible to recognize autism in infancy. The symptoms most commonly include peculiarities of gaze, hearing and play.
Avoidance of eye contact is often thought to be a characteristic of children with autism. This feature is less important than the unusual quality of the gaze. Many infants do not appear to see people and so may not look people in the eye, but in the baby with autism the gaze tends to be brief and out of the corner of the eye.
A peculiarity of hearing seems to be especially significant. Many children with autism have been suspected of being deaf at an early stage in their lives. Very few actually have a hearing loss, though they may not respond to their name and appear to be unaffected by audible changes in the environment. Children with autism may seem to ignore even very loud noises that would be expected to startle most ordinary children.
Social development and play-
In young babies, play and social activity are closely connected and it is in this sphere of development that parents may note that their child is odd. Babies with autism may show a lack of interest in the types of play that most infants enjoy, such as those which involve social interaction with the parent.