What is autism? Are kids with autism like little ‘Rain Men’?

Autism is a developmental disability categorized under the umbrella of pervasive developmental disabilities by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) (APA, 2000). What this means is that it is lifelong (currently there is no ‘cure’) and it can affect all areas of normal development and functioning, as well as the functioning of the family unit as a whole, as I am sure many parents of children who have autism can attest to. There are three major areas affected by autism:

  • regression in regard to language/communication skills that have developed by age 2-3
  • ongoing repetitive, ritualistic, or stereotypical behavior or interest in toys or other items in a child’s environment (some examples include hand flapping, toe walking, a vocal tic, rewinding/fast forwarding a movie over and over, etc.)
  • general disinterest in social interaction with peers or family members (for example, avoidance of eye contact, affectionate behavior like hugging, etc.).

On the ‘Rain Man’ reference, it’s important to remember that autism is a spectrum disorder meaning you can have two children both diagnosed with autism that have starkly different strengths and challenges. In my practice, families of kids who have the more severe cases of autism generally feel a little left out of the mass media portrayal of what autism actually is. As a rule, I strive to make sure the voice of those children and families is heard as well… so no, kids with autism do not always have savant ‘Rain Man’ abilities – are they still interesting and amazing in their own way? Unequivocally… YES!