The Development of Autism: A Self-Regulatory Perspective

By Thomas L. Whitman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Autism and Its Characteristics

What is it like to be a child with autism? How is the development of children with autism different from other children? Some insight into these questions is revealed by comparing their world with that of typical children. Prior to birth, infants are insulated by the protective cocoon of the womb. Their sensory environment is rich, but fairly orderly in its structure. It is noisy due to the beating of the mother's heart, her breathing, digestive sounds, movements, and voice. As the fetus explores the intrauterine environment, he/she receives diverse types of tactual, proprioceptive, and taste experiences (Maurer & Maurer, 1988). Compared to the world experienced after birth, this prebirth environment, although rich in sensory stimulation, is relatively muted, homogeneous, and predictable. After birth, the infant's world changes dramatically. I think it was William James who described the early postbirth world of the infant as a [blooming buzzing confusion]. Although this world is chaotic and can be stressful, infants have protective mechanisms, including sucking reflexes, eye closure, and other primitive state-regulation behaviors, that help them to accommodate to their environment until their neurosensory and neuromotor systems mature. A sensitive care-taking environment also protects the infant from excessive stimulation and assists the infant in this adaptation process.

What happens, however, as appears to be the case with autism, if the environment continues to be experienced as chaotic? What happens if the biological system that assists the infant in adapting to the environment is different or compromised? What happens if the care-taking environment is not fully aware of the excessive demands being placed on the child who has biological and behavioral limitations? Based on the observations of parents and professionals who interact with children with autism, as well as the self-report of high functioning individuals with autism like Temple Grandin and Donna Williams, the world of persons with autism not only begins in

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