Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a neurological disorder most of us have some familiarity with. Whether through personal experience with a loved one or contact with friends or our children's schoolmates, many have witnessed some form of autistic disorder.

Still, although it affects one in 165 children and is the most common neurological condition among children in Canada, this is a complicated spectrum of symptoms and there are many questions that still need to be answered before it is fully understood.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the term now used to describe several conditions with similar symptoms. ASD affects brain development and function and tends to cause difficulties with communication and social interaction. It also results in unusual patterns of behaviour, sensory perception, activities and interests.

There are five different forms of ASD ranging from autistic disorder (also known as classic autism) to Asperger's Syndrome. While all types of ASD are associated with some similar traits, there is a wide range in the severity of symptoms, age of onset, levels of functioning and general disability.

Some individuals with ASD may never be able to speak or communicate, while others are very high functioning, grow up to hold regular jobs and live independently. For example, classic autism usually develops before the age of three while Asperger's Syndrome is associated with higher functioning and is often not diagnosed until a child reaches school age.

Most people with ASD experience some difficulty with social skills. Either they show no interest in other people or are interested but don't know how to interact with others.

Communication difficulties are also very common in ASD. According to Autism Society Canada, without appropriate early intervention about 40 percent of children with ASD do not talk at all. Non-verbal communication is equally difficult, many people with ASD are unable to read social distance cues or the use of gestures or facial expression.

Repeated behaviours such as rocking, hitting, finger flapping or others as well as obsessive interest in only one thing, idea or activity are also common. Many with ASD are also very distressed with changes in environment or routine.

Many individuals with ASD also have unique abilities such as detailed or photographic memory, extraordinary skill with numbers, concentration or attention to detail. These abilities can often lead to highly specialized careers if the individual is able to learn the appropriate social skills and functioning in other areas.

Although autism was identified in 1942, we still don't understand what causes these conditions. We do know autism is four times more common among boys than girls and research suggests a genetic predisposition in some individuals. Studies are still ongoing into possible environmental and prenatal causes for these disorders. To date there seem to be at least 20 different genes involved, which makes ASD even more tricky to pin down.

A controversial and widely publicized debate exists as to whether autism can develop as a result of exposure to toxins such as mercury in childhood vaccines. To date, no link between routine childhood vaccines and autism has been scientifically validated. One study was published suggesting a link, but has since been rejected and the researchers charged with deception and suspect practices. For more information on this study visit

Not everyone with an ASD requires treatment, but many may benefit from intensive intervention beginning at a young age. Applied behaviour analysis and educational intervention have demonstrated effectiveness at improving global functioning and intellectual ability in young children.


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