Autism & Learning Difficulties

First identified by Kanner in 1943 and Asperger in 1944, autism is a severe developmental disorder, which is innate, that affects the way children process information. It has been suggested that autistic people have information coming at them all at once, which is on the whole, normal, however, autistic people find it difficult to process and sort out the information into different sensations such as colour, light, movement, sound, smell and feelings.

It is therefore a disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and form relationships with other people and affects the ability to respond appropriately to the environment. Kanner suggested that and autistic individual lives essentially, in and ‘asocial state’, shutting down and ignoring the world around them. Autism affects around 3 in 10,000 people yet autism is likely to affect 4 times as many boys than girls.

Can you list all the possible symptoms?

Although autistic individuals may not possess the same symptoms as others, they commonly share certain social, communicative, motor and sensory problems: He suggested that from an early age, parents who mistreat their children grow up in a climate of ’emotional refrigeration.’ It is important to understand here that ‘mistreated’ may not necessarily mean violent, physical or sexual abuse, it could simply be showing a lack of affection or love for the child. Bettlehiem believed that if their parents were continuously ignoring a child, the child was likely to be withdrawn from society and become individualistic.

A disadvantage for this study may be that the sample size was too small = unrepresentative. Bettlehiem also used a biased sample. Only highly intellectual parents were asked to take part in the study. This may suggest that highly intellectual parents have better jobs therefore work longer hours and in turn appear to be ‘ignoring’ their children. One major limitation to Bettleheim’s study is that although one child in a family may be autistic, their sibling may not be which questions whether the parents are ignoring their children and secondly questions whether autism is environmentally acquired. (Mitchell, 1997) Powell (1999) also agrees that this theory is invalid.

He said that any change in the parent’s behaviour is more likely to be caused by the autism than the parent’s changing their behaviour causing their child to be autistic. Piven and Folstein (1994), however, found that 30% of parents with an autistic child themselves show some autistic mannerisms which indicate that there must be some valid explanations for autism in terms of the environment of the child.

Genetic Theory of Autism

Kanner thought that autism also had a genetic component this was supported by several studies made by Rutter et al (1999). Rutter said that there is a very substantial degree of familial clustering of autism. That means that siblings of autistic children may also be autistic (2 – 6%). However this may support the environmental theory. If one member of a twin is autistic it was found by Rutter that there was a 60-90% chance of the other twin having autism providing that the two twins are monozygotic (i.e. are identical twins).

However the results from identical twin studies is difficult to analyse because autism is such a rare disorder and yet it is very rare to have an autistic child/ren within a set of twins because as well as autism being rare, having twins is also rare. Therefore there are not may reported cases of twined autistic children so results from these studies are unreliable to conclude. Theory of mind and mind-blindness  The theory of mind model is at present the most influential theory for explaining autism. Certain allergies produce certain behaviours found in autistic individuals such as head banging and other repetitive behaviours therefore some autistic individuals are put onto low carbohydrate diets to ease the compulsive behaviours given off when eating certain foods.

Large doses of vitamin B6 are given to calm autistic individuals down. Behavioural approaches for a therapy for autism Self-mutilative behaviour can be modified by conditioning an autistic individual who try to harm themselves. Often using extinction of behaviour = long time = disadvantage. Simmons and Lovaas (1969) = 1800 head bangs over 8 day period to extinguish head banging. Obviously, autistic individuals, are not transformed into normally behaving people, this is just therapy.

Cognitively based Approach One form of cognitive therapy for autism is ‘structural therapy’ where the environment is arranged to that the child will receive verbal stimulation in the form of games. Increasing the amount of stimulation the therapy allows them to make them more aware of their environment. Other approaches include family therapies getting the whole family involved with the autistic child – make them feel more comfortable – family games – again more aware of social situation. Describe and evaluate 2 theories of autism (12)

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