The following is an actual letter written in response to David, who wrote me when he was 10 years old as part of a research project on autism. David and his parents thought my answers might also be helpful to other children, so with their permission we are reprinting this reply.
Thank you so much for your questions. They were excellent and I hope I can help you to answer them. Here I go:
* What is Autism?
Autism is a type of a learning disability. That means that some types of information is harder for your brain to process than it would be for other people. Many people have learning disabilities. I have an Attention Deficit Disorder. That is a type of learning disability where, if the information is not interesting enough for me I have trouble paying attention to it. I take a medicine called Ritalin to help me do better. The learning disability caused by autism is different than mine and there is no medicine that makes it go away. People with Autism have trouble when there is too much information that they have to understand at the same time. They also have trouble when information changes too quickly and they have to make sense of all the new information and decide which changes are important and which are not. Since people change more quickly than anything else on the planet earth, persons with Autism sometimes have trouble making sense of what other people are thinking and feeling or are trying to communicate.
* Where does Autism come from?
Some problems have one single cause. Other problems may be caused by several different things that are not working as well as they should be. Autism is in the second group. People may have the Autism learning disability for a number of different reasons. But we do know that you and your parents did not cause Autism. The cause was something that happened in your brain before you were born. But however it began, your brain is not developing the type of connections it needs to solve all the different problems that you need to learn to solve.
* What makes Autism better or worse?
The main thing that makes Autism better is if we can teach your brain to work in a more connected way. It is helpful to think of your brain not as one single computer, but as hundreds of different computers that need to talk to each other all the time to work really well. That is what we call a network. We believe that when you have Autism, all the computers may be working well, but they are not networking as well as they should be. If we can teach them to communicate better with each other then we can make the autism better.
* How many people have Autism?
The latest information from the Center for Disease Control, which is the government agency that tries to figure out these things, is that about 1 out of every 150 people have some type of Autism.
* What kind of help can people get when they have Autism?
Well the type of help I invented, called Relationship Development Intervention®, or the RDI Program for short, teaches parents to be teachers to their children. Parents learn to teach their children how to make sense of the type of information that is hard for people with Autism. It can be hard work. But children with Autism learn to think in a new way and thinking is the best way we know to teach our brains to work better. So as you learn to think in new ways you are actually changing your brain!
* How do people behave when they have Autism?
There is no one way that people behave when they have Autism. Some people with Autism are very quiet while others are loud. Some people with Autism act out in class and some have perfect behavior. Some people with Autism like to eat everything and others are very picky eaters.
* Does Autism ever go away?
That is a tricky question. As I said before, I have Attention Deficit Disorder. I have had it my whole life and I do not think it will ever go away. But it does not bother me very much. It does not keep me from doing the job I like to do. It does not keep me from having good friends and a great family. So I don’t really worry about it going away. That is how I feel about Autism. It doesn’t really matter if it goes away or not. It is more important that people with Autism can have a good life and achieve all the goals that they make for themselves. That is what I think can happen.
I hope my answers helped you with your report. Thank you again for writing to me.
Dr. Steven Gutstein