Great strides have been made in our knowledge and understanding of autism since 1943, when the disorder was first described. Autism was first seen as an emotional and psychological disorder. Today most professionals believe it is a genetically based disorder of the brain.

Families and professionals are finding better ways to understand autism and helping those who have the disorder to cope with its many symptoms. With appropriate intervention, many autistic behaviors can be reduced, sometimes to the point that the symptoms of autism may not be readily apparent. However, most children and adults with autism will continue to exhibit some indications throughout their lives. Some children with autism maintain an age-appropriate educational level and attend general education classes, while others need specialized educational settings and supports.

Early diagnosis and appropriate educational programs are very important to children with autism spectrum disorders. Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly the Education of the Handicapped Act, includes autism as a disability category. From the age of three, children with autism and PDD are eligible for an educational program appropriate to their individual needs. Educational programs for students with autism or PDD focus on improving communication, social, academic, behavioral, and daily living skills. Behavior and communication problems that interfere with learning sometimes require the assistance of a knowledgeable professional in the autism field who develops and helps to implement a plan which can be carried out at home and school.

The classroom environment should be structured so that the program is consistent and predictable. Students with autism or PDD learn better and are less confused when information is presented visually as well as verbally. Interaction with non-disabled peers is also important, for these students provide models of appropriate language, social, and behavior skills. To overcome frequent problems in generalizing skills learned at school, it is very important to develop programs with parents, so that learning activities, experiences, and approaches can be carried over into the home and community.

Future potential and prognosis is very difficult to determine during the preschool and early childhood years. It is, therefore, very important to provid appropriate interventions as early as possible in the child’s life. While no one intervenion has been shown to work for all children, best practice-based interventions and combinations of interventions applied appropriately do have a positive impact of the child’s overall functioning and prognosis.