Mysterious Learning Disability

A look at Autism

Mysterious Learning Disability

The baby is healthy, everything is fine...or is it? Your baby isn't reaching normal, developmental milestones and markers.

Perhaps he doesn't respond to his name or has trouble walking or talking. Linda Malle's seven-year-old son, Philip, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, was faced with that very dilemma. "I knew there was something wrong, but my pediatrician said he was fine -a big healthy boy. In fact he reassured me that boys develop more slowly than girls," she says.

Do you know the warning signs?

Autism, once thought to be a disease, is in reality a developmental disorder of brain function. It is a result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. The disorder ranges from very severely involved to those who are only mildly affected. Symptoms of autism usually affect the child within the first three years of life -although they are often mistaken for other disorders and continue throughout that person's life. It is a developmental disorder that may vary with age and the developmental level of the child affected. Autism can coexist with other conditions as well. Autism knows no social or economic boundaries. It is found in families of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It strikes males almost four times as often as females.

Diagnosis and Symptoms

While there are no medical tests for the diagnosis of autism, it is classified as a pervasive developmental disorder and can be determined by the presence or absence of certain behaviors. Autism can vary a great deal in its severity. The more severe cases involve extremely repetitive, unusual, self-injurious and aggressive behavior - such as biting or head-banging. This behavior may continue over time and prove very difficult to change. The mildest forms may resemble a learning disability. Inconsistency in a child's development during the first few years may be the first indication. The child may start to develop normally and then seem to stop, many start to speak then stop. These children may start to speak later than others and use a sing song voice when relating a story. The problem in autism is not that children do not talk, but rather they do not communicate. There is a lack of ability in initiating conversations and volunteering information. The child may have very good skills in one area and very poor skills in another.

Some frequently used diagnostic criteria include:

1. Absence or impairment of imaginative and social play

2. Impaired ability to make friends with peers

3. Impaired ability to initiate or sustain conversation with others

4. Repetitive or unusual use of language

5. Restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus

6. Inflexible adherence to specific routines and rituals

7. Preoccupation with parts of objects

The most prominent feature of autism is impaired social interaction. These children may not respond to their names and seem unaware of others' feelings towards them. They fail to make eye contact and have difficulty interpreting tone of voice and facial expressions. Children with autism have difficulty in their interaction with other children. They have trouble initiating and then maintaining an age appropriate -relationship with their peers, although relating to adults does not seem to be a problem. It is not that autistic people do not want to establish friendships -they do not know how. The social interaction with other children is critical to development, so it is imperative to teach social skills. Many children with autism engage in repetitive movement such as rocking or hair twirling. Another characteristic is the abnormal response to sounds, touch and other sensory stimulation. This may explain the reaction of resistance to being touched or cuddled. Linda Malle remembers a time when Philip wouldn't eat. "At first I thought he was being a picky eater. Then I realized he was sensitive to the consistency of the food," she explains.

Common Myths

There are many myths associated with autism. It is not true that many children with autism do not establish eye contact. Many children establish eye contact -it may just be different from that of a typical child. They do look at people, smile and express other non-verbal communications. It is also untrue that all children with autism do not speak. Many develop good functional language while others develop some form of communication skill whether it be sign language or use of computers or electronics. One of the more damaging myths associated with autism is the misconception that these children cannot give and receive love and affection. Sensory stimulation is processed differently so these children express emotion and affection in non-conventional ways. They show their feelings on their own terms. And interestingly, Malle did not expect her son Philip to be as affectionate as he is. "Philip," Malle says, "will give anybody a hug or a kiss. Sometimes my daughter says no when I ask her, but not Philip."

There is no objective measure to determine how severe the autism is in a particular person. Some with normal intelligence may be described as mildly autistic and yet there are others with normal intelligence that may have many symptoms and appear very autistic. There are some who scored lower on intelligence tests but exhibit less symptoms and have milder forms of the disorder. People with autism can lead happy, productive lives -although at this point there is no "cure."


"Early intervention" describes the provision of services to young children with disabilities or those at risk of developing disabilities. These services include the evaluation, assessment and treatment of young children up until the age of three. The services are provided to lessen the effects of the child's disability. If, after an evaluation and assessment the child is found to have a disability or developmental delay, then the child is eligible for early intervention services.

For a child with autism early intervention should include the development of an individualized treatment plan. This plan should include both academic and non-academic goals. The goals and objectives may include social skills such as communication and behavior modification along with functional skills like dressing, toilet training and feeding oneself. There is no one program that is appropriate for all children. Whatever program is decided upon it should emphasize each child's unique strengths.

MK Solner is the mother of two boys.