Prevalence, Definitions, and Characteristics
Autism is a disorder characterized by severe impairments of social, emotional, and intellectual functioning. Children with autism are often described as having great difficulty communicating and interacting with and responding to other people. Many individuals with autism also exhibit stereotypic behavior such as self-stimulating behaviors; bizarre speech patterns such as repeating the words of other people over and over again (echolalia); and disruptive behavior; sometimes including self-injury (Scott, Clark, & Brady, 2000; Simpson & Zionts, 2000). Children with autism are typically identified before the age of 3. Frequently, parents are the first ones to become concerned when their infants do not respond positively to being touched and held closely, and when language does not develop along the common developmental milestones.
Individuals with autism make up approximately .15% of the school-age population, or 1.7% of the students served under IDEA (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). The prevalence of autism appears to be increasing in recent years, although the reasons for this are not completely clear (Simpson & Zionts, 2000). Related diagnostic categories include autistic disorder, Rett’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The current diagnoses indicate that individuals with autism may function along a continuum of severe to mild disabilities, and that educational accommodations vary according to an individual’s functioning level. Individuals with severe autism may have limited to no expressive and receptive language, while individuals with milder forms of autism may have developed more sophisticated communication as in the case of those with Asperger’s disorder. Although symptoms and severity level vary among individuals with autism, communication and social competence are typically the two greatest challenges. Some individuals—perhaps as many as 75% of those with autism—also have mental retardation (Heward, 2006). Individuals with Asperger’s disorder, however, are often very intelligent. Because of this variability, autism is often referred to as autism spectrum disorder. (Simpson & Zionts, 2000).
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