In 1943, Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Psychiatric Clinic published his landmark paper dealing with autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In his research, he observed 11 children who, to Kanner, appeared to have four common traits: a preference for aloneness, an insistence of sameness, a liking for elaborate routines, and certain abilities that seemed remarkable when compared with the deficits. Independently of Dr. Kanner, Hans Asperger of the University Pediatric Clinic of Vienna was preparing his doctoral thesis on children with similar traits. Both researchers used the term “autism” to describe the core features of the disorder, a term used in adult psychiatry to describe the progressive loss of contact with the outside world experienced by people with schizophrenia. Both researchers noted that same loss of connection with the outside world in the children they studied.
As Kanner’s and Asperger’s work became known, many major clinics began to also identify children with autism. Today, autism is defined as a “complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication.”[i] An autism spectrum disorder describes the three categories currently included within this diagnosis: Autistic disorder (also called “classic” autism), Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDDNOS) (or atypical autism). PDDNOS also includes childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revised their estimates of the prevalence of autism in the US. With 1 in 88 children identified as being on the autism spectrum, it is important to learn the facts.
At this time, there is no cure or single treatment for all people with autism or for ASD. However, early intervention options help maximize learning and minimize symptoms. In addition to the excellent resources from the CDC, visit the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to learn about the current studies in the US and abroad. The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) currently has four projects dealing with ASD that include the development and evaluation of an intervention skills program for Spanish-speaking parents of children with autism, the use of robotics in the inclusive classroom, and the effects of bicycle training on children with down syndrome and ASD. NIDRR also has over 80 articles dealing with autism spectrum disorder.