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About Autism

What is Autism?

An overview by Ron Leaf, PhD
Co-Director, Autism Partnership


Autism is a severe disruption of the normal developmental processes that occur in the first three years of life. It leads to impaired language, play, cognitive, social and adaptive functioning, causing children to fall farther and farther behind their peers as they grow older. The cause is unknown, but evidence points to physiological causes such as neurological abnormalities in certain areas of the brain.

Autistic children do not learn in the same way that children normally learn. They seem not to understand simple verbal and nonverbal communication, are confused by sensory input, and withdraw in varying degrees from people and the world around them. They become preoccupied with certain activities and objects that interfere with development of play. They show little interest in other children and tend not to learn by observing and imitating others.

Although children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, or “Autism,” exhibit common behavioral deficits (i.e., communication and social) and excesses of self-stimulatory behaviors, there are tremendous differences among children. For example, although many children with Autistic Disorder may have limited understanding and use of language, there are those children who may be able to understand complex language, express their needs or even converse. Their language deficit may involve difficulties of grammar or speaking in a robotic fashion. Children with Autism also demonstrate a variety of social deficits. Whereas some children may reject all social contact, there are children who are quite social. However, they may only be social around adults and have no interest in children. Or there are children who are interested in children as well but do not initiate or sustain interactions. Similarly there are tremendous differences among children’s self-stimulatory behaviors. Some children may exhibit repetitive body movement while others may self-stimulate by lining up objects, or repetitively tapping an object or watching the exact same segment of a video tape. Some children may not demonstrate any noticeable self-stimulation but may have complex and obsessive rules.

The uniqueness of the Disorder can be quite baffling to parents and professionals alike. Therefore, a diagnostician with tremendous experience is necessary to make this complex diagnosis.


*See LA FEAT’s Local Providers list for independent psychologists who are qualified to make a diagnosis of autism.


Disclaimer: Everything contained herein is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal, medical, or any other type of professional advice. Nothing contained herein is intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from your own medical and legal professionals. LA FEAT makes no promises, guarantees or implied agreements as to the accuracy or completeness of anything contained or referenced to herein, or how such may affect your family. Please seek out your own professional advice before making any decisions concerning your child.