Autism is a developmental disorder that can affect every area of an individual’s life. In order to receive a diagnosis of autism, a child must have deficits in communication and social interaction as well as demonstrate restricted, repetitive, or stereotypic behaviors. In addition, many children with autism also demonstrate various behavioral problems (e.g., noncompliance, tantrums, aggression, self-injury), self-help deficits (e.g., feeding, toileting), play skills deficits, and learning how to learn deficits (e.g., attending, learning from feedback). While all children with autism demonstrate deficits in the three diagnostic areas, there is tremendous variety among children. This can often be baffling to parents and professionals that work with children with autism. While one child may be non-verbal and isolated socially, another child may have strong language skills but not know how to interact appropriately with others; both children may receive the same diagnosis of autism.
Thus, Autism is a spectrum of disorders. Deficits in communication can range from non-verbal to difficulties with grammar or speaking robotically. Deficits in social interaction can range from rejecting and isolating to difficulty making age-appropriate friendships or engaging in awkward social interactions. Stereotypic behaviors can range from gross motor movements (e.g., rocking, hand flapping) to obsessive topics of conversation. While there is a wide range of symptoms demonstrated, all children with autism are negatively impacted by their symptoms and deficits; thus, early, intense, and quality behavioral intervention is imperative to improving the quality of life for all children with autism spectrum disorders.
It is still unknown the exact causes of autism. Autism is likely an extremely complex cluster of disorders for which pinpointing an exact cause is unlikely to occur. What we do know is that there is likely a strong genetic component to the development of autism. While there is no known cause, theories abound within autism communities and social media as to the causes of autism; most of these theories, however, are not founded in science or have been found to be untrue.
For example, we do now know that autism is not an emotional disorder (e.g., Kanner, Bettelheim), as initially believed by early clinicians. Some other theories found in social media, which are not based on any actual science, include leaky guts, cosmic rays, lead poisoning, watching TV, MMR vaccines, and food allergies.
While we all want to identify the cause of autism, and, thus, find a treatment, there is most likely no easy answer. There is no easy road to recovery, no magical pill. Instead, the road to recovery is difficult and requires intense dedication on the part of the parents and professionals working with these children.
The notion of "recovery" from Autism is a controversial term. This is because Autism is a developmental disorder that one is technically never "cured" of. This term was first used to refer to the children, described by Dr. Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues at UCLA, who were classified as "Best Outcome" following intensive ABA intervention. In the 1980's, nineteen children at UCLA received intensive and comprehensive intervention based upon the principles of ABA. During follow-up evaluations, 9 of these 19 children were classified as "best outcome"; their IQ's were in the normal range, they were placed in regular education classes without supports, and they no longer qualified for a diagnosis of Autism.
A second reason that "recovery" is a controversial term is because it may provide parents with a desperation to cure their child of Autism. Our intervention goals are not focused on "recovery", but rather on developing the skills necessary for the individual to live a quality life. Thus, we want the individual to have the skills to be as successful in all areas of their lives, including personal relationships, school, work, and independence.