Autism is considered a developmental disability and  in October 2009,  a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, placed the diagnosis rate at 1 out of every 91 children — 1% of American children today.

Autism is a diagnosis  shared by babies, children and adults who may all act and look different, but who have challenges  in the same three areas : communication, social interactions, and  imaginative play or thought.  A diagnosis is made by observing the behavioral characteristics in those areas.  As there are no physical characteristics that are shared by those in the spectrum, and there is a wide range of  abilities  and disabilities –  it is not always easy to identify.

A diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder is based on criteria set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)  published by the American Psychiatric Association.  The DSM is used in the United States and by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and policy makers. As of November 2009, it is in it’s fourth edition (DSM IV).   In  2012 the fifth edition, or DSM V, will be published, and may or may not include changes to the diagnostic criteria for an autism

Autism is considered a spectrum disorder because of the variations of autism that exist from  the non-verbal, less functionally-able child with classic  autism; to the very verbal, academically-gifted  child with Asperger’s Syndrome and every variation in-between.   Many parents  also describe  medical problems  (ie, gastro-intestinal and immune system issues) and/ or  sensory processing challenges.

Two people  may share  the label of autism, but  they can be as different as night and day. When parents of children or teens with autism meet for the first time, the inevitable question is “What’s your kid like?,” because they are all so different.  For example, my twenty two year old son, Jeremy,  who has classic autism, has difficulty with many self-help skills, has little speech, does his school work and communicates with the use of a  letterboard, an ipad, or other assistive technology. My friend’s son, Tom, has Asperger’s Syndrome, can read and write in four languages,  and his favorite past time is to study the world’s religions, yet has  difficulty  carrying on  any conversation unrelated to his area of interest.

In between, there are many  different variations. A favorite expression in the autism community is “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Some children are calm, some are hyper, some are aggressive, some are ‘runners,’ always trying to escape the confines of an enclosed space.  Some like to stay in the same spot and twiddle with a toy.  Some are very smart, and others are unable to demonstrate how much they are understanding because of their difficulty in communication. In recent years,  more children with autism appear to suffer from gastrointestinal problems.

You may see someone rocking in place while waiting in line at the grocery store or bus stop,  or  a child throwing  what looks like a temper tantrum to the untrained eye in a grocery store. You may know a quiet  teenager considered nerdy,  or  have a neighbor who   sometimes  flicks his fingers in front of his face while walking. All of these could be different manifestations of an autism spectrum disorder.

For more information on Autism Spectrum Disorders, read Autism Spectrum Disorders (Penguin), or 41 Things to Know About Autism (Turner), both written by Chantal Sicile-Kira.