Autism: Past, Present, Future, Speculative
Autism is all over the news right now, a very different situation than 18 years ago when we were looking for the cause of our son's developmental delay. Much of the media coverage, however, focusses on the sound-bite and tear-jerking opportunities that any problems with young children can provide. This is fine for the television crews, but it really does not inform the public, or help parents who are wondering whether their child could be autistic, or what to do with a child who is autistic. Autism is a neurological condition, a developmental disorder. Increasingly, as the ability to image brain structure and trace brain function improves, it's evident that autism results from physical differences in the structure and function of the brain. Although it used to be considered a psychiatric disorder with an "emotional" cause, it is instead a physical problem, in the same way that a missing limb or eye is a physical problem. The autistic child's brain is not physically set up to process information the same way as an average baby's brain. One of the most frustrating things for parents is that there is no single, obvious test for autism itself--there are only screening tests which look at children's behavior and skills, and compare them to those of average children the same age. These screening tests have improved (when our son was a toddler, we were told he could not be autistic because he clung to, and showed affection for, family members--not true) but they are not good enough, or widely known enough, to be trusted by non-specialist physicians and by school personnel. Tragically, many autistic children are refused services they need because a physician or a school counselor refuses to accept that the child is autistic. It is easier for a school, for instance, to label a child disruptive, difficult, oppositional, lazy, naughty, etc., than to admit that he is autistic and that they have been mistreating him for years. In...
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