There are several reasons why I chose the topic of Autism. First, autism is intriguing
because it is very hard to understand. Medical science is at a loss to explain why and how it occurs.
Second, I have had occasion to develop a personal relationship with children who are afflicted with
At The Childrens Institute, where I volunteer, I sit and play with many kids, two of whom
are very hard to play with. Even though they are five and six years old, they avoid making eye
contact with others, and often refuse to play with the other kids. Also, once they start watching
something, like television, it is very hard to get them to look somewhere else. They are focused,
almost mesmerized by the television, especially if there are flashing lights or colors. One child
rocks back and forth, sometimes slowly and sometimes faster. An older child makes noises a lot,
hums and randomly laughs for no reason. My observations prompted me to do some research into
autism and I found that these were traits which others had also observed in patients afflicted with
Autism has mystified scientists and doctors for more than a century. So, what do we know
about it now? It is a complex developmental disability that usually appears during the first three
years of life, and it arises from a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.
The brainstem of a person with autism is shorter than a normal brainstem, lacks a structure known
as the superior olive and has a smaller than normal structure known as the facial nucleus.
Scientists who have observed the brainstems of autistic patients have reported that it is though a
band of tissue is missing.
The symptoms of autism vary from one person to another. Some people can be affected
greatly by one symptom, while other may be affected more strongly by a different symptom.
This developmental disability impacts normal development of the brain in areas such as
social interaction and communication skills. Children with autism cannot interpret the emotional
states of others, they dont recognize anger, sorrow or manipulative intent. Their language skills
are limited and they will often fail to initiate and sustain conversations.
It is common for an autistic person to avoid being touched because of a heightened sense of
touch. A light touch to most people may hurt an autistic person. On the other hand, some autistic
people are insensitive to pain and wont notice injuries. Hearing can also be heightened so that a
noise that would not bother your or my ears, may hurt an autistic persons ears. Autistic peoples
vision can also be affected. They have trouble recognizing people. They can also have their eyes
hurt by a bright light or a certain flickering.
People with autism lack normal non-verbal communication and body language. Because of
this, they will seem more literal minded and unemotional than those around them. They also have
trouble with verbal communication which sometimes means they will take a question or statement in
a literal or unusual way. Some autistic people display communication difficulties such as difficulty
remembering vocabulary and pronouncing words. Some are mute. Many need extra time to process
verbal questions or comments and to reply. From time to time they will repeat things they hear or
even their own words.
As you can see, autism affects its victims in a wide variety of ways. Some do well in special
supportive environments, other are completely independent and function fairly well, and still others
may never learn to talk or be able to work or live independently.
Problems arise when autistic people attempt to handle multiple stimuli. Because they have
very narrowly focused attention, they can only keep up with one thing at a time. Most people have a
mind like a flashlight, with an area of high focus, and a larger area or partial awareness. The
autistic mind, though, is more like a laser-pointer that highlights only a single small dot to the
exclusion of all else.
Autistic people often dislike, or display a pronounced dislike for change. They have strong
attachments to places, objects, and routines. They can become very upset if they are forced to
abandon these things.
People with autism may be seen as extremely shy. Some may be or seem socially anxious,
but others arent anxious, just uninterested or unaware of how to interact or approach others.
Their lack of normal body language may make them seem more distant or unemotional than they
Autistic people will often do strange things, like flapping their hands in front of their eyes,
humming, spinning in circles, rocking back and forth, or repeating things. They do these things just
for fun, or because they are excited or distressed. The repetitiveness is related to the natural
repetitiveness and narrow focus of the autistic mind. Talking to oneself or giggling for no apparent
reason is often the result of intense daydreaming or remembering.
A child with autism is normal in appearance to the untrained eye. But scientists have
identified a few physical anomalies. The corners of the mouth are low compared with the center of
the upper lip, and the tops of the ears flop over. Also, the ears are a bit lower than normal and
have almost a square shape.
In the information I have gathered, we see both how similarly affected the victims of
autism are and how much the effects of autism vary from one person to another. New scientific
discoveries have served to dispel some of the mystery of this complex developmental disability. Of
course, it is frustrating for anyone who has a family member or is a family friend of an autistic
person because there is still no explanation for why autism strikes.
As a volunteer who works with autistic children, I believe it is important to increase
awareness and understanding of this affliction. We can and should reach out to autistic children
and help them live lives that are as meaningful and productive as possible. In doing so, I have found
that we can enrich not just their lives but our own as well.