Understanding Autism

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(This article appeared in the November/December 2003 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Autism is a developmental disorder that severely impairs a person's ability to communicate and socially interact with others. It affects 500,000 Americans, occurring four times more often among boys than among girls. The cause is unknown.

Signs of autism almost always develop before a child is 3 years old. Toddlers with autism do not respond or interact like other children their age. Quite often, the parental diagnosis is that there is a hearing problem.

Guidelines established by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) are used to evaluate a child suspected of having autism to ensure that developmental delays are not the result of other conditions with similar symptoms.

Although all people with autism do not share exactly the same symptoms and deficits, they tend to show similar social, communication, motor, and sensory problems that affect their behavior in predictable ways.


Infants with Autism

Normal Infants

  Avoid eye contact   Study faces, especially their own mothers'
  Seem deaf   React to sounds
  Develop language, then abruptly stop talking   Expand grammatical usage and vocabulary
Social Relationships  
  Are unaware of comings and goings of others   Cry when parents leave the room
  Attack others without provocation   Get upset for a reason, such as when frustrated
Exploration of Environment  
  Often get fixated on a single item or activity   Engage in a variety of activities
  Practice unusual actions such as rocking, hand-     flapping, and sniffing or licking toys   Explore and play with toys
  Show little sensitivity to burns or bruises and may engage in self-mutilation   Avoid pain


The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975 is a federal law that requires public schools to provide appropriate educational services for all disabled people between the ages of 3 and 21.

EAHCA was strengthened and expanded with the passage of the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Extra funds are granted to individual states that provide special education programs that comply with federal guidelines on minimum standards.

Resources For Families

To reduce household stress and improve the functioning of an autistic child, talk to your doctor and community organizations. Be sure to inquire about government-sponsored programs that supply trained personnel to assist families in caring for autistic children.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has prepared a booklet, "Autism," which includes sections on symptoms, available education, and treatment programs. Information also is available on the NIMH Web site: www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/autism.cfm.

The National Information Center on Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY)provides a list of state agencies serving children and youth with disabilities. NICHCY also offers parent training and information projects. The toll-free number is 800-695-0285.

Children's Health Insurance

There is no standard or "typical" person with autism. Some individuals need assistance in all aspects of their daily lives, while others attend school in regular classrooms. Everyone agrees that early diagnosis and treatment are the key to making the most of an autistic child's potential.

Each state has a Children's Health Insurance Program that provides free or low-cost health insurance for eligible children; information is available on The Insure Kids Now Web site:www.insurekidsnow.gov.

This article was inspired by Ann Richard, a member of the APWU Pensacola Area Local. Richard is the author of the book, "And When He Didn't Come Home," her family's story on living with an autistic child. She can be reached (toll free) at 877-944-9408.

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