Article

Autism

James D. Herbert

in Psychology

ISBN: 9780199828340
Published online March 2013 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0110
Autism

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The term “autism” refers to a heterogeneous class of related neurodevelopmental disorders that emerge early in childhood and are associated with pervasive effects across multiple areas of functioning. Autism is increasingly conceptualized as a collection of deficits and functional impairments that fall on a continuum—hence the term “autism spectrum disorders” or ASDs—rather than a single disorder. Once thought to be rare, ASDs have dramatically increased in prevalence in recent years and are now thought to affect up to one in eighty-eight children in the United States. There remains debate, however, on the extent to which there has been an actual increase in prevalence and on whether the apparent increase is attributable to better case recognition and expanded diagnostic criteria. Autism was first recognized by the medical establishment in the early 1940s, although there are various descriptions in earlier literature of individuals who would undoubtedly be understood as falling within the autistic spectrum today. Early causal theories were dominated by the psychoanalytic perspective, which blamed the condition on cold, rejecting parents (especially mothers). Although psychoanalytic accounts have been thoroughly discredited, they remain popular in some parts of the world. More recent etiological work focuses on the interactive effects of genetic and environmental factors (especially prenatal exposure to certain substances). Although there is no cure for autism, several helpful treatments have been developed, including those based on behavioral psychology, those focused on developmental interventions, and those employing structured classroom environments. In addition, pharmacotherapy can be helpful for some ASD individuals as a treatment for co-occurring problems. The scientific evidence is strongest for applied behavior analytic approaches, although some positive data also exist for certain developmental and structured learning approaches. Nevertheless, the research literature is marked by several deficiencies, including the lack of studies directly comparing these approaches, a lack of studies focused on determining the specific “active ingredients” within each approach that are responsible for their effects, and a paucity of longitudinal research, including research on adolescents and adults. Finally, for a number of reasons, autism has become a magnet for a variety of dubious, unsupported pseudoscientific theories and intervention programs. Parents, policymakers, and professionals alike would do well to adopt a skeptical attitude to simplistic claims about the causes of ASDs and about treatment programs that sound too good to be true.

Article.  7932 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology ; Developmental Psychology ; Health Psychology ; History and Systems in Psychology ; Educational Psychology ; Social Psychology

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