When Stacey went over to her new friend Chelsea's house, she met Chelsea's 4-year-old brother, Shawn. "Hi," said Stacey, smiling. Shawn looked at her but didn't say anything. Then he turned back to a toy he was holding. Later, in Chelsea's room, Stacey said, "I don't think your brother likes me."
"It's not your fault," said Chelsea. "It's not that he doesn't like you — Shawn has autism and it's hard for him to talk sometimes. But I can show you how to play with him, if you want."
Stacey wanted to know what autism meant. Let's find out.
What Does Autism Mean?
People usually call it autism (say: AW-tiz-um), but the official name is autism spectrum disorders. Why? Because doctors include autism in a group of problems that kids can have, including Asperger syndrome and others. These problems happen when the brain develops differently and has trouble with an important job: making sense of the world.
Every day, our brains interpret (understand) the things we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and experience. But when someone's brain has trouble interpreting these things, it can make it hard to talk, listen, understand, play, and learn.
A kid's symptoms could be very mild, severe, or somewhere in the middle. For example, some kids might be upset by too many noises or sounds that are too loud. Kids who have milder symptoms don't mind loud noises so much. Someone with mild symptoms might need only a little bit of help. But a kid with severe symptoms might need a lot of help with learning and doing everyday stuff.
Kids with autism often can't make connections that other kids make easily. For example, when people smile, you know they feel happy or friendly; when people look mad, you can tell by their face or their voice. But many kids who have autism spectrum disorders have trouble understanding what emotions look like and what another person is thinking. They might act in a way that seems unusual, and it can be hard to understand why they're doing it.
A kid with an autism spectrum disorder might:
- have trouble learning the meaning of words
- do the same thing over and over, like saying the same word
- move his or her arms or body in a certain way
- have trouble adjusting to changes (like trying new foods, having a substitute teacher, or having toys moved from their usual places)
Imagine trying to understand what your teacher is saying if you didn't know what her words really mean. It is even more frustrating if a kid can't come up with the right words to express his or her own thoughts, or tell a parent what he or she needs or wants. Sometimes this can make a kid very upset and frustrated.
Some issues — like not wanting to try new foods or not wanting anyone to move your toys — affect lots of kids, not just those who have an autism spectrum disorder. But kids with these disorders have more trouble "growing out of it" and learning to handle stuff that's challenging and annoying.
What Causes Autism?
No one knows what causes autism spectrum disorders. Scientists think that there's a connection to genetics (something to do with a kid's genes) and the environment. Some kids might be more likely to get autism because it runs in their families. Other kids get it even if nobody in their family has these types of problems.
Knowing the exact cause of autism is hard because the human brain is very complicated. The brain contains more than 100 billion nerve cells called neurons (say: NUR-ahns). Each neuron may have hundreds or thousands of connections that carry messages to other nerve cells in the brain and body. The connections and the chemical messengers they send (called neurotransmitters) keep the neurons working as they should. When they do, you can see, feel, move, remember, experience emotions, communicate, and do lots of other important stuff.
In the brain of a kid with autism, some of those cells and connections don't develop normally or don't get organized like they're supposed to. Scientists are still trying to understand how and why this happens.
Getting Help for Autism
The earlier a child starts getting help, the better. But figuring out if a kid has an autism spectrum disorder can be difficult at the beginning. A parent is usually the first to think that something could be wrong. Maybe the child is old enough to speak but doesn't. Or a kid doesn't seem interested in people, has a hard time playing with others, or acts in unusual ways.
Often, specialists work together as a team to figure out if there is a problem. In addition to the doctor, the team might include a psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and teacher.
There is no cure for autism, but doctors, therapists, and special education teachers can help kids learn to communicate better. A kid might learn sign language or get a message across by pointing at pictures. The care team also can help improve a kid's social skills, stuff like taking turns and playing in a group.
Some kids who have mild symptoms will graduate high school and may go to college and live on their own. Many will always need some kind of help. But all will have brighter futures when they have the support and understanding of their families, doctors, teachers, therapists, and friends. So be sure to be a friend!
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2012
Originally reviewed by: Wendelin A. Burdo-Hartman, MD