Autism Basics

Autism Awareness
Kim Peek is a well-known savant and was the inspiration for the title character of "Rain Man."
Kim Peek is a well-known savant and was the inspiration for the title character of "Rain Man."
Image courtesy Kim Peek, Darold A. Treffert, M.D. and Wisconsin Medical Society

From the 1950s until the 1980s, a prevailing theory about the cause of autism was that it stemmed from bad parenting -- the so-called "refrigerator mother theory" (meaning the mother is emotionally cold) put forth by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Today, we know this is untrue. Autistic children aren't poorly raised -- they are born with an inherited susceptibility to the condition.

Autistic children also are not badly behaved -- their temper tantrums and other unusual behaviors stem from their frustration in being unable to effectively communicate and interact socially. They are not dumb, either; in fact, some autistic children are extremely gifted in one or more areas.

A common misconception is that people with autism are slow or mentally retarded. In fact, a small percentage of people with ASDs are remarkably gifted. Consider Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond Babbitt, in the 1988 film, "Rain Man." Peek has read more than 7,000 books, and can recall with photographic accuracy more than 80 percent of their contents. Given a person's date of birth, he can immediately produce the day of the week on which the person was born. London-born author and math whiz Daniel Tammet can recite the number pi to more than 20,000 digits, and fluently speaks 10 languages. He's even invented his own language, Manti.

There are also people who were diagnosed with autism as a child but may actually have Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, is a famous example of a person who overcame autism and became highly successful. Dr. Grandin has designed livestock handling facilities used throughout the world, written four books -- including a New York Times bestseller -- and appeared on numerous TV and radio shows.

For lots more information about autism, autism spectrum disorders and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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