Friday, April 22, 2011

The Difference Between Autism

By Lisa Jo Rudy, Guide April 12, 2011

Yes, the grammatical error was intentional!

Autism Awareness Month is a great time to get out the word about issues in autism. One of the toughest for everyone, including people on the spectrum, parents, teachers, therapists and doctors, is the incredible disparity among people with autism. How do you make the world aware of a single disorder that can present itself so very differently in different individuals? How do you create policies, undertake research or provide services for a group of people who have radically different needs? How do you plan a school program, provide therapies, or even access support when your situation is practically unique?

Of course the answer is - there is no one "autism," and that issue lies at the heart of many of the problems experienced by members of the disparate group that is sometimes called the "autism community."

Some of the biggest differences we face include -

* Differences in physical symptoms. Some people with autism also have serious physical problems including (but not limited to) sensory dysfunctions, seizures, gastrointestinal problems, sleep issues and food allergies.
* Differences in functional level. One person with autism is brilliant, intense, extremely anxious and often depressed. Another is non-verbal and physically aggressive. A third is low-key, affectionate, verbal, but lacking in social and communication skills. Which of these people is most functional? The answer isn't always obvious. What is obvious is that these people can't do the same things, don't need the same supports, and have very little in common as individuals.
* Differences in onset of the disorder. Particularly for parents of children with autism, differences in personal experience can create huge rifts. While one parent saw her child "descend" into autism almost overnight, another sees that her son, who has always been different, is also an awful lot like Uncle Bill - the brilliant but quirky engineer. Differences like these are causing huge battles over questions like "what causes autism?," "can autism be prevented?" and "is autism a difference or a disability?"

So what are the different types of autism? How different are they from one another? Unfortunately, even the official categories of autism (there are five) don't make clear distinctions. And those categories will likely be reduced to just three when new guidelines for diagnosis are put in place in 2013. Here are some definitions, though, that may help families better understand "the difference between autism."

Types of Autism

What Are Pervasive Developmental Disorders?

"Pervasive Developmental Disorder" is a formal term that means exactly the same thing as the less formal "autism spectrum disorder." As with the autism spectrum, the group of disorders described as pervasive developmental disorders includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett Syndrome.

What Is Asperger Syndrome?

Often called "the little professor" or "geek" syndrome, Asperger syndrome describes individuals at the highest-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Unlike other autism spectrum disorders, Asperger syndrome is often diagnosed in teens and adults. People with Asperger syndrome generally develop spoken language in the same way as typically developing children, but have issues with social communication that become more pronounced as they get older. Because people with Asperger syndrome are often very intelligent - but "quirky" - the disorder is sometimes nicknamed "geek syndrome" or "little professor syndrome."

What Is Mild Autism?

The term "mild autism" is not an official diagnosis. It's simply a more descriptive term than "Asperger syndrome" or "autism." Generally speaking, when people use the term mild autism they are referring to individuals whose symptoms fit an autism spectrum diagnosis, but who has strong verbal skills and few behavioral issues. Those individuals may, however, have significant problems with social communication. They may also have problems coping with too much sensory input (loud noise, bright lights, etc.).

What Is High Functioning Autism?

Like "mild" autism, high functioning autism (sometimes shortened to HFA) is a made-up term that's become more and more commonly used. HFA is a tricky term, because it can be hard to distinguish a person with HFA from a person with Asperger syndrome. The official distinction is that people with HFA had or have speech delays, while people with Asperger Syndrome have normal speech development. But there may also be very real differences in terms of social awareness, personality characteristics, and other traits. The jury is still debating the fine distinctions.

What Is PDD-NOS?

"Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified" is a mouthful of words that are often applied to people on the autism spectrum. It describes individuals who don't fully fit the criteria for other specific diagnoses, but are nevertheless autistic. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to define the symptoms of PDD-NOS, which may range from very mild to very severe. As a result, the term is rarely used outside of practioners' offices. Most parents, therapists and teachers prefer to use more descriptive (though less official) terms to describe their children, students and patients with PDD-NOS.

What Is Severe Autism (Autistic Disorder)?

Severe autism is officially termed autistic disorder. It goes by many other names, though, including profound autism, low functioning autism, or classic autism. People with autistic disorder are often non-verbal and intellectually disabled, and may have very challenging behaviors.

What Is Rett Syndrome?

Rett syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects only girls. It is the only one of the autism spectrum disorders that can be diagnosed medically (so far). Girls with Rett syndrome develop severe symptoms including the hallmark social communication challenges of autism. In addition, Rett syndrome can profoundly impair girls' ability to use their hands usefully.


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