Autism For Dads     |     home

What Does Autism Mean?

What Does Autism Mean?



Autism (say: awe-ti-zum) is a kind of brain disorder that causes kids to experience the world differently from the way most other kids do. Those differences make it hard for kids with autism to communicate with others and react to things going on around them in the usual ways.

When someone smiles, for instance, a kid without autism knows that the smiling person is happy or being friendly. Kids with autism, however, have trouble connecting a person's gestures - such as a smile or frown - with the person's feelings. It's difficult, too, for kids with autism to link words with their meanings. Imagine trying to talk with someone or learn from a teacher if you couldn't make sense of their words and gestures and couldn't come up with the right words to express your own thoughts!

Autism also creates a confusing world of senses. Quiet sounds may be loud and distracting to a kid with autism. A sudden noise could be terrifying. A person's touch might set off a wave of strong sensations - like when a chill gives you the shivers, but much worse.

The disorder makes some kids with autism behave differently, too. Some flap their hands or say certain words over and over, have temper tantrums, or play only with one particular toy. Most kids with autism don't like changes in routines, which means they like to stay on a schedule that is always pretty much the same. They tend to keep to themselves and many can't communicate without special help.

Autism is a problem in the way the brain works, probably due to too few or too many brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (say: noor-oh-trans-mit-erz). It can range from mild to severe. Some kids with autism have fewer or less serious problems. For example, learning and reasoning can be especially difficult for many kids with autism, but others may learn quickly.

In the United States, over 500,000 people have autism or one of several other similar disabilities. Doctors call these similar disabilities pervasive (say: purr-vay-siv) developmental disorders, or PDDs. About one in every 500 kids has some type of autism or PDD. Kids who have autism usually start having symptoms between the ages of 18 and 36 months.

More boys have autism than girls.

Autism isn't contagious, which means you can't catch it from someone who has it.


What Causes Autism?

Nobody knows for sure what causes autism. Some scientists think that some kids might be more likely to get autism because it or similar disorders run in their families.

Knowing autism's exact causes is hard because the human brain is very complicated. The brain contains over 100 billion nerve cells called neurons (say: nuh-rons). Each neuron may have hundreds or thousands of connections to other nerve cells in the brain and body. The connections (which are made by releasing neurotransmitters) let different neurons in different areas of the brain - areas that help you see, feel, move, remember, and much more - work together.

For some reason, some of the cells and connections in an autistic kid's brain - especially those that affect communication, emotions, and senses - don't develop properly or get damaged. Scientists are still trying to understand how and why this happens.