What Is Autism?

Learn what autism is from pediatrician and child development expert Asma J. Sadiq, M.D. in this Howcast video.


What is Autism? Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is behaviorally described. It is seen in children and it starts early in life. The issue is in three areas being involved which is your social communication, disordered speech and language, not just delayed language, but disordered language, or atypical language development. And then the area is of restricted, repetitive behaviors and play. And these are the three criteria that have been used in the DSM4. The new classification, which is now the DSM5, really focuses on two areas, which is the disordered social communication, and the repetitive play and stereotypies, etc. So this is a newer classification but there are many other areas that we see with children, beyond the exact DSM diagnosis. A lot of kids have sensory issues. They can be oversensitive to sound and texture or undersensitive.

There're kids who have savant skills, very gifted. Parents come in excited, these kids are reading by two and three years of age, and actually these kids have a photographic memory who are just repeating things and have what we call, "echolalia", repeating words or scripting, which is knowing a dialogue from a book or a movie verbatim. So many of these unusual things are also seen in children with what we call now the "Autism Spectrum Disorder." And medical issues is another area that we can talk about, but basically it's important to understand the behavioral disorder involved and making the diagnosis.

So the term, "Autism", was first coined by Dr. Leo Kanner in the '40s and he described children with these particular difficulties as I mentioned, with communication, with speech, and with repetitive play and particular interests. But over the years, the naming has changed from childhood schizophrenia to psychosis to pervasive developmental disorders, and that is commonly used as well, but the current language is, "Autism Spectrum Disorders", because it is a matter of degree of involvement. And I think that is very important to understand that we are labeling the children. We are looking at symptoms and we are trying to define them because it becomes important for diagnosis as well as to provide services. I don't want anybody to be just called, "Oh this child is autistic". I want the child to be remembered for who they are, having particular symptoms that we have labeled as having Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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