What Is Autism?

What Does Autism Mean Today?

The word autism is the catch-all term that many people use when referring to the spectrum of autistic disorders. The more current term for autism is ASDs, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and includes the following five diagnoses: Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder, and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified).

Many people used to subscribe to the myth that everyone with an ASD behaved like the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie Rain Man, who had the uncanny ability to remember complex combinations of numbers but couldn't perform simple tasks like making toast. Or people subscribed to the myth that all children with ASDs were aloof and unresponsive, rejected hugs, and never showed affection. We now know that ASDs are much more complex, with a variety of symptoms and characteristics that can occur in different combinations and in varying degrees of severity. We also know that each individual with an ASD is unique, with a distinctive personality and individual character traits.

An ASD is not a disease, such as pneumonia or high blood pressure. (A disease is defined as an illness or sickness where typical physiological function is impaired). An ASD is a developmental disorder--a condition in which there is a disturbance of some stage in a child's typical physical and/or psychological development, often retarding development. An ASD shows up in the first few years of a child's life. It can affect a child's abilities to communicate, use his or her imagination, and connect with other people -- even parents and siblings.

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