What Is Autism?

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What Is Autism?

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So let us start with a simple question. What is autism? Webster’s Dictionary defines autism as a complex pervasive developmental disorder which involves the functioning of the brain. It is a neurological disability and not simply a psychiatric disorder, although typical characteristics include problems with social relationships and emotional communication, as well as stereotyped patterns of interests, activities and behaviors. It also involves problems with sensory integration. Typically, it appears during the first three years of life.

Some parents have compared the rapid change in their child to someone coming into their house, stealing their child and replacing the child with someone completely different. Such a statement shows how quickly autism can become apparent.

It is estimated autism occurs in as many as 1 in 150 American children born every year, and it is four times more prevalent in males than in females. In fact it is estimated by the Autism Society of America that almost 1 in 94 of every American boys are diagnosed with autism every year. It is even more prevalent in Caucasian males.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder, due to the fact that a large spectrum of disorders falls within the autism diagnosis. One example is Asperger’s syndrome, which is a higher functioning form of autism. Another is sensory integration dysfunction. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of autistic children are labeled as autistic savants. Only an extremely small percentage of cases are able to master with perfection a specific skill such as the piano, math, history, mechanics, etc.

There are two main types of autism: regressive autism and early infantile autism. Early infantile autism is present at birth, while regressive autism typically starts to take effect around 18 months.

Most people with autism have problems relating to others. However, within the past decade, it has become evident that early diagnosis can lead to a treatment plan that can help limit the effects of autism and in some cases, help the child relate to the world and learn to communicate better.

Now that we know what autism is and some basic facts on autism, let’s look at the history of autism. The term autism has been in use for around 100 years. However, when the term was first applied, it was used to define a class of people with schizophrenia by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Autism comes from the Greek word autos meaning “self.” This term was used for this group because people with autism are typically drawn into their own world and markedly detached from socially accepted interaction.

In 1943, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, Leo Kanner, began a study on children with social or emotional problems, comparing them with children with schizophrenia, and rightly concluded there was a difference between the two disabilities. He began to differentiate the children with schizophrenia and the other children, whom he began to label as “autistic.” Although his research showed there was a distinct difference, the separation of autism did not start in earnest with most doctors until the 1960s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the early history of treating autism became very cruel, as doctors started using techniques such as LSD, electric shock and harsh behavior-changing techniques such pain and punishment. It was hoped that these procedures would change the behavior of the children and force them out of their own world and into more acceptance of social interaction.

Thankfully, from the 1980s to the present, the common treatment for autism is a far more humane one. It is a highly structured learning environment, as well as behavior-modification strategies such as A.B.A. (Applied Behavior Analysis). Programs such as A.B.A. primarily focus on the behaviors of children with autism, with the intent to modify their adverse behaviors into more socially accepted behaviors.

Autism itself can be a devastating diagnosis for any family, but let’s take a look now at some famous people in history who have shown autistic traits and are now commonly believed to have had some form of autism. Perhaps you’ve heard these quotes: “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “My life is a simple thing that would interest no one.” “I didn’t speak till the age of 5 because I really had nothing to say.”

Maybe not all of us would recognize those quotes, but surely we would all recognize E=MC². Yes, Albert Einstein. He was slow to learn and talk. In fact, in his younger years he developed a weird habit. He would construct whole sentences with his lips before letting out a single word, and then he would say all of it at once.

Although Albert Einstein is thought to have been one of the greatest minds of all time, many people have accepted that he was, in fact, autistic. His writings and his known behaviors have been studied and his brain and how different areas of it functioned have been examined. From all this we can learn something very valuable: Although people with autism seem socially and emotionally different from us, some are still extremely intelligent. Think about where we would be now without Einstein and his contributions to our world.

It would surprise many to learn of the other famous people with autism or who showed autistic traits. Another such example is Thomas Jefferson. He displayed unconventional behavior throughout his illustrious life.

“One winter, he put in book form all the information on Virginia that he had been collecting for many years. The work was published in 1785 as Notes on the State of Virginia. It became one of the most famous and respected scientific books of its time and was acclaimed in Europe and America. Jefferson had described and reflected on the natural history, geography, climate, economics, Native Americans, religion, manners, agriculture, politics, and many other aspects of his native state” (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99).

The fact that he compiled a large amount of data in so short a time points out that he had an extreme ability to pay attention to facts and details, which is one of the many facets of autism.

There are many other famous people in history who have shown autistic traits, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, John Lennon and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Why spend time talking about these people who have shaped and changed our culture and the way we think throughout history? To point out that people with autism should not be considered outcasts of society, especially not to us as members of the Church. Instead, by educating ourselves, we can gain respect, understanding and compassion for those who, through no fault of their own and with no other option, are forced to live out their lives in a way radically different from ours.


  • brigittethibault

    Thanks a lot for this article on Autism. I am 53 years old, and I am currently in the process of getting diagnosed. I strongly suspect that I might have Asperger syndrome. I have always felt different from other people.
    I started to attend the United Church of God this year. I join Zoom Sabbath meetings, since I live too far to gather in person with other people. In my case, it is a blessing. Social meetings in person truly exhaust me, as I am so self counscious of how to behave publicly, what is acceptable to say, smile to try to be friendly with people, and so on. I tend to overanalyze things, and it makes me seem bizarre to others. I am quite disturbed by noise, so to hear many people speak at the same time in a large gathering is painful to me. Following a simple chat demands all of my energy. So I am wondering how it will be when I will attend my 1st Feast of Tabernacles in person. I thank Our Father in Heaven, because He helps me a lot with my limitations, as I struggle with daily anxiety too.
    Thanks a lot for your patience reading my long message. May God bless you all.

  • turkdxg

    1 out 0f 2 children will have autism by 2035 according to statistics as it has not leveled off yet....vaccines are responsible for many cases as our children stabbed with many needles from the time they are born up til they graduate from school...big pharma makes billions yearly from millions of mandatory innoculations....the medical profession is the 3rd leading cause of death year in and year out....world wide church of god taught against vacs....my daughter had been affected after her 1st mmr shot at age 2...the last my children ever received.....

  • Ace

    Hi Mr Howell
    First of all thank you for your response to my article. My brother is 33 and was diagnosed with Autism when he was 3 1/2 years old which was about the time I was born. Today he is completely non verbal and I have only heard him talk once in my life. I watched my parents battle the school district for everything and they still fight for my brother today. My brother (Mark) is on the lower functioning spectrum and needs constant supervision. Unfortunately with Autism every situation is different so it would be hard to give advice other than to reach out to see what programs are available in your area. However I would highly recommend reaching out to organizations like Autism Speaks(autismspeaks.org) and similar organizations as a way to help your son in the social aspects. Also the church is a strong tool that can be used for support. With Autism being on the rise in our country an important thing to remember is that your not alone either. To this day I can still see the pain that Autism has caused my family and my parents. However none of us would be who we are today without my brother or him having Autism. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  • Skip Miller

    PART 2 Autism (to Dave)
    You may also call the high school to see if they can refer you to adult programs. He may quality for State Disability which would give you some funds to assist him in transportation to areas where there are programs. If there is a community college near by contact them and see what they offer for young adults with his abilities. It is difficult to know what your son is capable of doing. It may be that there are apartment living programs in a city near you for someone like your son. If he qualifies for disability that could help pay for the program which is closely supervised. In the meantime we can pray about your situation. It is not an easy one for your son or for you and your loving wife.

  • daveyboy58

    My 27-year-old Son is Autistic, He was diagnosed at the age of 4. My Wife & I have worked with him in every way possible and He was able to stay in a regular school environment and Graduate High School at age 18 with all of his classmates. It was a constant battle with Teachers and Administration to help provide the help he needed. Now that he is an adult and living with His Mom & I he is experiencing many of the same problems with many of the so-called adults in this small town we have lived in all our lives, in addition to this he wants very much to have a female relationship; there are No places for him to get involved in around here for social get togethers. We are at a loss as to do to help him in this situation; I would like any good advice?
    Thanks; Dave

  • Skip Miller

    Hello Dave,
    I have very little direct experience with autism but
    I have a friend in the church with a 23 year old autistic grandson. He was not able to meet the high school graduation requirements and graduated from a special school for disabled students. Here is what she has to say:

    It is very difficult for young adults with any type of disability after they leave school. They miss being with friends and they need to keep busy. Our grandson, 22 years old with autism, is currently in an adult program for those with disabilities. It is a program funded by different agencies. He is being trained to use the community services and be trained for a job. He is currently working part time for a large pet store stocking shelves. The most important part of the program is the fellowship he has with other adults. Also, there are two agencies which sponsor activities for these young adults such as basketball, dances, and other types of socials. It is much more difficult when you are in a small town however there still should be some services available. It may It may be you can contact your state Department of Disability to see what they offer.

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