Q. What is autism and what are the symptoms?

A. Autistic Disorder is classified as a neuro-developmental disorder that manifests itself in markedly abnormal social interaction, communication ability, patterns of interests, and patterns of behavior.


Although the specific etiology of autism is unknown, many researchers suspect that autism results from genetic vulnerabilities to environmental triggers. And while there is disagreement about the magnitude, nature, and mechanisms for such environmental factors, researchers have found seven genes prevalent among individuals diagnosed as autistic. Some estimate that autism occurs in as many as one United States child in 166, however the National Institute of Mental Health gives a more conservative estimate of one in 1000.


For families that already have one autistic child, the odds of a second autistic child may be as high as one in twenty. Although autism is about 3 to 4 times more common in boys, girls with the disorder tend to have more severe symptoms and greater cognitive impairment. Diagnosis is based on a list of psychiatric criteria, and a series of standardized clinical tests may also be used.


Autism is characterized by the following according to the DSM4TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000):

  • Impairment in social interaction

  • Impairment in communication

  • Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities

  • Delays in normal functioning with onset prior to 3 years of age

Disturbance can not be accounted for by the diagnosis of another disorder.

Q. What is Asperger’s and what are the symptoms?

A. Asperger’s Disorder falls into the Autism Spectrum although it is markedly different then classic autism in that most individuals with Asperger’s appear to fall into the “normal spectrum” and are almost always considered to be severely lacking in socials skills. In fact, prior to its being officially diagnosed, Asperger’s, was simply referred to as a social skills disorder. Asperger’s Disorder is characterized by the following according to the DSM4TR (2000):

Qualitative impairment in social interaction


Restrictive repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities


Disturbance causes impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning


There is no clinically significant delay in language


There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in age appropriate self-help skills or adaptive behavior


Criteria is not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia


Q. What other disorders?

A. Pervasive Developmental Disorder, NOS (not otherwise specified) is another disorder in the Autism Spectrum, which is diagnosed when there is a severe impairment in social interaction, which permeates into all areas of verbal and non-verbal communication. This disorder may have many of the symptoms of Autism but be un-diagnosable due to the atypical display and variance of characteristics.

Rett’s Disorder is also in the Autism spectrum. The incidence is not as high as Autism and the symptoms are very different. This disorder is characterized by the following according to the DSM4TR (2000):

  • Normal prenatal development

  • Normal psychomotor development during the first 5 months after birth

  • Normal head circumference at birth

  • Deceleration of head growth between 5 and 48 months

  • Loss of previously acquired purposeful hand-skills between ages 5 and 30 months with the subsequent development of stereotyped hand movements

  • Loss of social engagement early on (often social interaction develops later)

  • Appearance of poorly coordinated gait or trunk movements

  • Severely impaired expressive and receptive language development with severe psychomotor retardation

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is another disorder in the Autism Spectrum, which not as commonly diagnosed. The criteria for the disorder according to the DSM4TR (2000) are as follows:

  • Apparently normal development for at least the first 2 years after birth

  • Clinically significant loss of previously acquired skills before 10 years of age

Abnormalities of functioning in social interaction, communication or restricted, repetitive and stereotyped behaviors

  • The disorder is not better characterized by another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has been called many different names over the years such as ADD, Hyperkinesias, and Minimal Brain Dysfunction. The diagnosis of this disorder is difficult because the diagnostic criteria are loaded with subjective judgment call words such as, “developmentally inappropriate.” Sometimes schools or parents working with exceptional children who may not “fit the mold” seek to find a diagnosis through testing. However, there is no test that proves definitively that a person has ADHD. That being said, there are three subtypes to this disorder as characterized by the DSM4TR (2000):

  • Primarily Hyperactive/Impulsive type is characterized by the existence of at least 6 of the following symptoms for at least six months: fidgets or squirms in seat, often leaves seat in classroom or other situations, runs about or climbs excessively in inappropriate situations, often has difficulty in engaging in leisure activities, is often on the go, often talks excessively, often blurts out, often has difficulty awaiting turn, or often interrupts or intrudes on others

  • Primarily Inattentive type is marked by six or more of the following symptoms present for at least 6 months: Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes, often has difficulty sustaining attention or staying on task, often fails to follow instructions or turn in homework, often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities, often avoids engaging in tasks or activities, which require sustained attention, is often easily distracted by outside stimuli, or is often forgetful in daily activities.

Combined type: If both of the above criteria are met for at least 6 months

It is very important to note that there is a very high incidence of co-morbidity between ADHD and Autism. This disorder is most common in boys. It can run in families. Adults may also have symptoms.

Q: How is a “learning disability”


A: Learning Disability is an umbrella term for disorders that can occur in any or all three of the main areas of learning; math, reading and written expression. No matter which area or areas it affects, this type of disorder significantly interferes with academic achievement, even though performance test scores measuring individual skills are not substantially below that expected for the individual’s chronological age, measured intelligence, or age appropriate education. These disabilities must be diagnosed utilizing secure tests, which are standardized and normed appropriately. These tests must be administered and scored by the appropriate, licensed professional most usually a school psychologist, licensed educational psychologist, or a clinical psychologist.


Q: How is mental retardation diagnosed?

A: Mental Retardation is literally diagnosed by an intelligence quotient (IQ) of less then 70. However, a true diagnosis of mental retardation is really not just about a number or a score on a test. It is about level of functioning and ability to perform life skills. Just because a child receives a label of “mental retardation” as a result of a single low test score, it is important not to dismiss them as incapable of learning independent life skills. Many persons identified as mentally retarded go on to lead productive, happy lives. It depends upon a child’s ability to adapt and learn life skills. While an individual’s IQ test score may be low, he/she may in fact be very able to learn to function extremely well in society given the opportunity to acquire knowledge in a way that makes sense to him/her. It is important to give these people an opportunity to grow, mature, and develop their own unique talents.

Q: What is Down’s Syndrome?

A: Down Syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality present and usually physically obvious from birth. This disorder can include a variety of physical challenges and is typically accompanied by a diagnosis of mental retardation and is treated similarly.