Autism Awareness Month, Part I: What is Autism?

5 Apr

Eleven years ago this month, my daughter, Paige, was diagnosed with autism or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), the preferred medical term back then.  I’ll never forget the day at the Cook Children’s neurology office.  My mother had flown in from California for the appointment, which we’d waited six months to get.  My husband took off from work.  The grim-faced doctor made autism sound like a death sentence.  I cried so hard and so much it looked like I’d been to a funeral, even days afterward.

It felt like one, too.  What the doctor didn’t tell us—couldn’t have, of course—is that autism would become just another fact in our life, like Paige’s blue eyes or that I write for a living.  No one could have known that autism would define us in some ways—from the schools Paige would attend to our constant search for appropriate therapies and services—and not in others (we go places, have friends, live life!).

Along this journey, which I plan to discuss in detail during this month’s posts, I have been asked the most fundamental of questions countless times: what is autism?  Here is how Autism Speaks defines this condition that 1 in 110 American children will be diagnosed with this year.  (For more, visit www.autismspeaks.org.):

What is Autism?

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD).  The other pervasive developmental disorders are PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified), Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.  Many parents and professionals refer to this group as Autism Spectrum Disorders.

How common is Autism?

Today, it is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.  An estimated 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide are affected by autism.  Government statistics suggest the prevalence rate of autism is increasing 10-17 percent annually.

What causes Autism?

The simple answer is we don’t know.  The vast majority of cases of autism are idiopathic, which means the cause is unknown.

The more complex answer is that just as there are different levels of severity and combinations of symptoms in autism, there are probably multiple causes.  The best scientific evidence available to us today points toward a potential for various combinations of factors causing autism – multiple genetic components that may cause autism on their own or possibly when combined with exposure to as yet undetermined environmental factors.  Timing of exposure during the child’s development (before, during or after birth) may also play a role in the development or final presentation of the disorder.

There is a growing interest among researchers about the role of the functions and regulation of the immune system in autism – both within the body and the brain.  Piecemeal evidence over the past 30 years suggests that autism may involve inflammation in the central nervous system.  There is also emerging evidence from animal studies that illustrates how the immune system can influence behaviors related to autism.  Autism Speaks is working to extend awareness and investigation of potential immunological issues to researchers outside the field of autism as well as those within the autism research community.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Autism Awareness Month, Part I: What is Autism?”

  1. deebeeautismmama April 5, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

    Great info! I am working on a lot of autism awareness myself this month (heck, 365/24/7 actually) and I’m excited to see posts like yours. My dream is that by the time I have grandkids, everyone knows what autism is and doctors are paying attention earlier. (I’d love to wish for a way to prevent it by then, but I have a 22-yod, so I doubt that’ll happen!)

  2. Lisa April 6, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Thank you! It’s been a fascinating (and challenging) journey for our family, one that has shaped each of us in so many ways!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: