Autism is a broad spectrum of challenges in social communication and language. The diagnosis may also include being obsessed with routines and/or special interests. The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth revision, or DSM V as it is more commonly known, does not recognize the four different categories of autism found in the DSM IV, including Asperger’s Disorder (also known as high-functioning autism), but many doctors and patients continue to use this particular term informally because it can be descriptive of certain unique characteristics.
The science of autism has progressed rapidly in recent years using sophisticated biological research on early brain development. We know autism is highly heritable. Specific genes associated with autism have been identified, and much of the current research is focusing on the interaction between genetics and the myriad of environmental factors that can play a part.
Temple Grandin, PhD, is a renowned professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is on the autism spectrum, and is a prominent advocate for the autistic community, as well as a best-selling author, a worldwide speaker on autism, and the subject of the movie in her name. In her words, people with autism are different, not less. We suspect that historical figures such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Wolfgang Mozart were in the autism spectrum. However, many people in the spectrum do not garner the admiration and support these famous people had, thereby making it harder to blend in.
People with autism have unique characteristics, and many celebrate their “neurodiversity” as natural variations in the human genome. That said, people in the spectrum benefit greatly from early intervention. Intensive sessions of speech and language therapy and hands-on training in social skills can dramatically improve verbal and nonverbal communication. Talk therapy is used to address social awkwardness and help with processing emotions. Some people with autism are at higher risk of developing mood disorders, anxiety disorders, tics and Tourette’s disorder, which are treated with therapy and sometimes medication.