The Pulse

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What is autism?

Autism (sometimes called “classical autism”) is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. Other ASDs include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have autism. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females.

What are some common signs of autism?

There are three distinctive behaviors that characterize autism. Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

How is autism diagnosed?

Autism varies widely in its severity and symptoms and may go unrecognized, especially in mildly affected children or when it is masked by more debilitating handicaps. Doctors rely on a core group of behaviors to alert them to the possibility of a diagnosis of autism.

These behaviors are:
  • impaired ability to make friends with peers
  • impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
  • stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
  • restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
  • inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals

What causes autism?

Scientists aren’t certain what causes autism, but it’s likely that both genetics and environment play a role. Researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorder. Studies of people with autism have found irregularities in several regions of the brain. Other studies suggest that people with autism have abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters in the brain. These abnormalities suggest that autism could result from the disruption of normal brain development early in fetal development caused by defects in genes that control brain growth and that regulate how neurons communicate with each other. While these findings are intriguing, they are preliminary and require further study. The theory that parental practices are responsible for autism has now been disproved.

What role does inheritance play?

Recent studies strongly suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism. In families with one autistic child, the risk of having a second child with the disorder is approximately 5 percent, or one in 20. This is greater than the risk for the general population. Researchers are looking for clues about which genes contribute to this increased susceptibility. In some cases, parents and other relatives of an autistic child show mild impairments in social and communicative skills or engage in repetitive behaviors. Evidence also suggests that some emotional disorders, such as manic depression, occur more frequently than average in the families of people with autism.

How is autism treated?

There is no cure for autism. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that target the core symptoms of autism: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests. Most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

  • Educational/behavioral interventions: Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with autism often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with an autistic child.
  • Medications: Doctors often prescribe an antidepressant medication to handle symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anti-psychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more of the anticonvulsant drugs. Stimulant drugs, such as those used for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), are sometimes used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.
  • Other therapies: There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available for autistic children, but few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any of these treatments.

What research is being done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is one of the federal government’s leading supporters of biomedical research on brain and nervous system disorders. The NINDS conducts research in its laboratories at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland , and also awards grants to support research at universities and other facilities.

Announcing The Jamie McMurray Fan Pledge Campaign

Jamie McMurray announces the Driving Autism Awareness campaign for the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Season.

When you join the campaign with your pledge, you will receive a specially-made #42 Puzzle Decal for your car!

Get all the details HERE!

Autism on the rise

The number of reported cases of autism has increased dramatically over the past decade.

There has been an explosion worldwide in reported cases of autism over the last ten years. In the last decade, the population of the United States has increased by 13%. There has been an increase in nonautism- related disabilities of 16%. The increase in autism is 173%.

There has been considerable speculation as to why this might be, with no conclusive proof emerging around any theory. Epidemiologists argue that the rise is either partly or entirely attributable to changes in diagnostic criteria, reclassifications, public awareness, and the incentive to tap into federally mandated services.

APRIL  2005

National Autism Awareness Month

The history of autism?

The classification of autism did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century. In 1943, Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism. At the same time a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a different form of autism that became known as Asperger's syndrome — but the widespread recognition of Asperger's work was delayed by World War II in Germany.

Autism and computing

Computers can be an ideal environment for promoting communication, sociabilility, creativity, and playfulness for individuals even at the extreme of the autistic spectrum. This is the opinion of the non-profit group Autism and Computing. They argue that the central feature of autism is attention- tunneling, or monotropism. Computers would afford an easy way of joining attention tunnels with minimal mutual discomfort, circumventing some of the most disabling features of autistic spectrum disorders. The potential for computer use in treating autism would not just be educational but therapeutic. The group presents both theory and practice on its website Autism and Computing (http://www. NAS/index.htm).

Autistic savants

The autistic savant phenomenon is sometimes seen in autistic people. The term is used to describe a person who is autistic who has extreme talent in a certain area of study. Although there is a common association between savants and autism (an association created by the 1988 film "Rain Man"), many autistic people are not savants. Calendar calculators and fast programming skills are the most common form. Some famous examples are Daniel Tammet, the subject of the documentary film The Brain Man (http:// story/0,3605,1409903,00.html) and Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man.

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