Excerpt: 'The Autism Sourcebook'

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.AnASD 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.

As the name implies, ASDs are spectrum disorders, ranging from mild to severe. A child on the severe end of the spectrum may be unable to speak and also have mental retardation. A child on the mild end of the spectrum may be able to function in a regular classroom and even reach the point where he or she no longer meets the criteria for autism. No two children with ASDs are alike, even if they have the same diagnosis. One child with an ASD may be nonverbal and have a low IQ.Another child with the exact same diagnosis may have an above-average IQ. A third child may be verbally and intellectually precocious. The terms high-functioning and low-functioning are sometimes used to describe where a child is on the autism spectrum.

You can't tell that a child has an ASD simply by looking at a picture of him or her. A two-year-old with an ASD can be the same height and weight and be just as adorable as a "typical" two-year-old. ("Normal" is not used in this book because it is a relative term, and one that is not widely accepted in the ASD world. The Autism Network International introduced a new term, neurologically typical or NT, to describe people without ASDs, which has been shortened to typical as the acceptable term in many publications).What distinguishes a child with an ASD from a typical peer is what you can't see: the brain. This is why ASDs are known as invisible disabilities.

Because there is no medical test for an ASD, a child is diagnosed based on either the absence or presence of certain behaviors and skills. For example, if a child is still not speaking by the age of three, that is considered the absence of an age-appropriate behavior. If a three-year-old child engages in odd or idiosyncratic behavior, such as excessive hand flapping, grimacing, or aimlessly running back and forth across a room, that may be an indication of a developmental disorder.

What Are Early Signs of ASDs?

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