The autism epidemic

It’s likely that you or someone you know is affected by autism. What are its causes – and what can be done about it?

Autism strikes one in 200 people in Canada – and one in 165 children. And in the U.S., the number is even higher: the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced the disorder affects one in 150 children, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.

Recognized as the most common neurological disorder affecting children, the number of autism cases is increasing worldwide. In fact, it’s increasingly likely that you or someone you know is already affected by autism. But what is it, what are the causes – and what can be done about it?

What is Autism?
Autism refers to both Autistic Disorder and a range of disorders that are called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), a term that includes Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder (or Asperger’s Syndrome) and Pervasive Development Disorder.

People with ASD develop differently from others, particularly in the areas of motor, language, cognitive and social skills. Symptoms of ASD are highly individual and range from the mild to the severe.

Here are some examples of common types of characteristics and behaviours in a child or adult with an ASD, from the Autism Society Canada website:

Difficulty with social skills

• Some people with ASD show no interest in other people
• Others might be interested in people, but not know how to talk, play with, or relate to them
• Initiating and maintaining a conversation is usually difficult for people with ASD who are verbal

Problems with communication

• Speech and language skills may begin to develop and then be lost, or they may develop very slowly, or they may never develop. Without appropriate intensive early intervention about 40 per cent of children with ASD do not talk at all
• People with ASD might not be able to interpret non-verbal communication such as social distance cues, or the use of gestures and facial cues that most of us take for granted

Repeated behaviours and restricted interests

• People with ASD may have repeated ritualistic actions such as spinning, repeated rocking, staring, finger flapping, hitting self, etc.
• Small changes in the environment or in daily routines that most people can manage might trigger acute distress
• They may have restricted interests and seemingly odd habits. They may talk about or focus obsessively on only one thing, idea, or activity

Unusual responses to sensations

• People with ASD may have both auditory and visual processing problems
• Sensory input may be scrambled and overwhelming
• Sensory problems vary in autism, from mild to severe with over and under-sensitivities

Stories from parents of children with autism are often heartbreaking. While some children with ASD never develop in a typical way, others seem to develop normally and then regress, losing their capacity to communicate and becoming trapped behind a wall of strange behaviours.