Defining Autism


Suzanne Oshinsky

Some common signs of autism are difficulty communicating, lack of social skills, and repetitive behavior. [1]

Remove the word autism from that sentence and those descriptions define most artists. There is an iconic, preconceived notion associated with artists labeled as genius. As they are consumed by their practice and their unique vision of the world, their artwork is the defining way for them to relate to others. Their medium is their voice. Their reality is experienced in a tunneled vision which allows them to focus on their craft.

Two of my favorite artists are Dan Graham and Vito Acconci. I've attended their lectures and have noticed that they speak in a way that lacks the social norm of a professional presentation–their language skills curt, their body language riddled with stereotypy. Prior to my job with CARD, however, I would have never used these words to define their behaviors.

Some defining characteristics of those with autism may appear to be idiosyncratic and out of control. To be an artist is to be dedicated to an interest. One repeats the same action over and over to get the balance and the look of the piece just right. The stacking of objects, the layering of paint strokes, etc is repeated indefinitely until it feels right. I want to emphasize the word FEEL. It’s not anything tangible or concrete that lets an artist know that the piece has reached completion. It’s a subjective feeling that the repetition in finessing it is over.

It is problematic thinking to believe that those who have difficulty communicating, lack of social skills, and repetitive behavior are autistic and not just exhibiting idiosyncratic quirks.

I say this only because many of my peers–people who I think are brilliant–have these common signs of autism. While these traits are subtle they are there none of the less.

I have heard people express the opinion that ABA therapy will destroy any individuality and uniqueness that their child possesses. I believed that as well until meeting a former client of CARD named Ethan during an interview for a documentary on autism. Ethan is now recovered, and when we spoke he was a funny, charismatic kid. While he was somewhat quirky, he exhibited none of the traits that would qualify him for a diagnosis of autism.

I wonder what the fine line is between autism and quirkiness.

Spreading Autism Awareness and Resources Around the World

CARD Virginia Team

In 2010, we participated in over 120 events – the most ever in one year for CARD! These events (walks, seminars, festivals, workshops, conferences, community forums) allowed us to be a part of something bigger, join forces with parents and other professionals, all while allowing us to help raise autism awareness, get connected, and thus...form a greater bond with the community.
CARD Los Angeles Team

It was a packed year, indeed! But one that we would gladly do again. In fact, we plan to do just that! We already have more than 30 scheduled events for 2011. And as we move into a new direction, we're going to collectively stretch farther into the community and spread more autism awareness with a special message that recovery is possible.

CARD Chicago

We hope we will meet you at many of the events around the nation and across the globe. Here’s a list of events our autism experts will attend or host, as early as January 19th. Click here – and view the entire list of currently scheduled events.

At the end of January, CARD will attend the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC), in Orlando. That’s where we will unveil Skills™, the one-of-a-kind, effective program for autism recovery.

Stay tuned to the CARD Blog for more details about Skills™ and this upcoming conference.

EXCITING things are happening, and we want you to be a part of them all. Stay tuned!

All the best,
Daphne Plump
CARD PR & Events Manager

Recovery from Autism: A Note From The Docs

Written By:

Adel Najdowski, PhD, BCBA-D

Director and Co-Creator of SKILLS and Manager of Research and Development at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders

Recovery from autism is still a controversial topic and many in the autism field are still afraid to discuss it. We at CARD have seen recovery for decades and we make it happen for some of the children that we treat. We are not the only ones. Treatment providers all over the country who have been doing top-quality ABA treatment for children with autism, for a minimum of 30 hours per week, for two or more years, have been recovering children for years. Let me explain exactly what we at CARD mean when we say a child has recovered from autism. We mean that the child no longer displays clinically significant impairments related to autism. In other words, there is nothing left to treat, the child is doing just fine. But it’s not good enough to just take our word for it, so here is how we measure it.

There are three main pieces to how we measure recovery from autism: 1) the child scores in the average range or higher on valid standardized tests of intelligence, language, socialization, and daily living skills, 2) the child is earning passing grades in a regular education classroom, with no specialized supports, whatsoever, and 3) the child is evaluated by a medical doctor or psychologist who is an expert in diagnosing autism, and the clinician’s conclusion is that the child no longer qualifies for any diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

You may have noticed that we use the word recovery in some of the marketing and public relations materials for SKILLS and you might be wondering if we are saying that SKILLS is going to recover your child. We are not saying that, and there is currently no guarantee that any treatment in the world can recover your child from autism. SKILLS is the best quality multidisciplinary system in the world for designing and tracking progress in ABA programs. Top-quality early intensive ABA treatment is what brings about recovery in some portion of children with autism, so if your team is using SKILLS and your team is doing professional-quality ABA treatment, starting before the age of 5, with 30 or more hours per week of therapy, continuing for 2 or more years, your child may have a chance at recovery.

Any scientists listening might be wondering about the research. Every single published study on the outcomes of behavioral intervention for children with autism, that included a control group, that started treatment before the age of 5, implemented more than 25 hours per week of treatment, and that continued treatment for 2 or more years, reported that at least some of their participants achieved functioning in the average range on at least some of their outcome measures. In most of these studies, some percentage of the children achieved average functioning on all of the outcomes. More scientifically rigorous research is still needed on recovery from autism, and as we are writing this right now, it is currently underway here at CARD and at a few other centers, but the evidence currently available already strongly supports recovery.

Some people acknowledge that children with autism may be able to achieve completely non-impaired functioning but they must still have autism. But if the child no longer qualifies for the diagnosis and does not have any challenges left for us to treat (other than any other typically developing child might), then why do we still need to burden him with the label? There may well be something still amiss biologically or physiologically, but if there is no longer any clinically significant impairment in language, socialization, and stereotyped behavior, then the child no longer has autism, they have impaired physiology.

It’s also important to note that the majority of children with autism today will not recover, even if they receive the best possible treatment. Recovery is not the only meaningful outcome of treatment. The point of ABA treatment is to maximize the development of each child, so that each child reaches his or her highest possible learning potential, and for some children the highest possible potential is recovery from autism. Some of the children we have recovered are now living on their own and succeeding in college or in mainstream jobs. For children who do not recover, maximizing learning potential means learning skills that will make their day-to-day life more independent, fulfilling, and dignified. All outcomes are meaningful and legitimate, so long as each child with autism is given their best possible chance to learn the most they can, using scientifically proven treatment approaches.

Another issue that needs to be discussed is that, by recovering someone from autism, we are not removing their unique perspectives on life or their unique personality. We are simply teaching skills, we are giving tools, we are opening up options. It is then the child’s choice as to whether or not he wants to take them. We are not trying to make anyone “normal,” we don’t even believe in normal. We believe in learning skills that make you stronger and more independent.

Unfortunately right now, the research has not been done yet to allow us to predict exactly who will recover and who won’t. As long as we are able to start intensive treatment, and by intensive I mean 30 or more hours per week, before the age of 5 or so, we are shooting for recovery with every child. We know we won’t achieve it in every case, but the worst possible outcome is that the child learns lots of useful life skills. The fact that most children will still not recover from autism doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a shot at getting the best treatment possible and learning the most they can.

Pass the word along. Recovery is possible.

Paying Tribute to Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas

By Marlena Smith

In a recent article published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Tristram Smith and Svein Eikeseth pay tribute to Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer of applied behavior analysis (ABA) treatment for autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Lovaas dedicated 40 years to autism research and his approach to ABA has transformed autism treatment.

Dr. Lovaas was a mentor to many including Dr. Doreen Granpeesheh, the founder and executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD). Dr. Granpeesheh studied under Dr. Lovaas at UCLA, and she contributed to Dr. Lovaas’ 1987 study, which found early intensive ABA intervention to produce remarkable gains in children with autism.

Dr. Lovaas pasted away this year at the age of 83. His lifework has changed the lives of countless children with autism and their families. To read about Dr. Lovaas’ many contributions to the field of autism and ABA you can access Smith and Eikeseth’s tribute at


Smith, T., & Eikeseth, S. (2010). O. Ivar Lovaas: Pioneer of Applied Behavior Analysis and Intervention for Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-010-1162-0

Do What You Love and Love What You Do

Among my peers, I am a celebrated optimist. Wherever there is a negative opinion, I am there to turn it into a positive. So it was only natural after reading a somewhat depressing blog ( by ‘Behavior Junkie’, that I would need to reply to it with a positive twist. The blog discusses the path that behavioral analysis is heading, and discusses the faults that he has witnessed in analysts. I am in no way criticizing this view, because it may be very valid from his perspective, instead I am giving my opinion based on my experiences.
There are plenty of downfalls we can see in a person’s ability as a behavior analyst. If they are young, they may lack experience. If they are experienced, they may be blinded by what they have witnessed or may be stuck using old methods that are no longer the most effective. If they are methodical, they may look at ABA treatment as a list of steps and procedures, where if the person is more emotional, they may use ABA too loosely. The truth is everyone is different, has a different personality, past, set of beliefs, and ultimately a different take on ABA. While the analysis itself is a precise application of behavior observation, reinforcement, and prompting, the analysis itself is likely to be subjected to the analysts’ personal qualities and experiences. Therefore no matter how alike ABA treatments seem to be there is always room for interpretation by the user. This diversity creates opportunity for growth and new findings in the field.
It is unnecessary to say that one needs to “adapt or die” because this view focuses on the career as an individual process, where with the help of co-workers, it can be a group activity. In this environment learning from others, and improving one’s skills is especially possible. I think the best advice for behavior analysts is for them to “do what you love and love what you do”. As cheesy as this sounds, I think it is exceedingly important to accept that we are more successful and give more of ourselves to the world when we are contributing something that is natural and enjoyable to us. If this is the lifestyle we choose and remember this passion, I can almost guarantee, that being humble and doing the job to the best of one’s ability will come as second nature. This does not mean that one does not need to work hard; instead this hard work will be beneficial to both the analyst and the families receiving the services. My suggestion is to take the Behavior Junkie’s advice as a caution to what behavior analysis can become if they do not continue to remember why they are doing what they do it in the first place: helping people is something they love to do, and behavior analysis is something they truly believe in. With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy a Happy Holidays full of family, happiness, and love.
Yours Truly,
Amanda Deering

Toys For Tots

The US Marine Corps in Pasadena assigned Corporal David Carranza and Corporal Emmanuel Garcia to pick up toys generously donated by the public and our staff from the Center for Autism’s offices for Toys For Tots.

Daily News, Saturday, December 18, 2010, page A8

Please check out the video footage on our Face book page. Thank you for your service to all our Marines!

The toys the Marines collected will be distributed to less fortunate children in and around the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. We’re particularly excited as we reached our goal of collecting a combined total of $100,000 worth of toys from 18 of our stateside offices this year. A big thanks to the Marine Corps and CARD's own Nancy Plotkin and Danielle Vandermade for making this year's toy drive possible!

Selecting Toys this Holiday Season

By Marlena Smith

There is no doubt that play is a crucial part of a child’s development. Through play a child can trigger his or her imagination and creativity, engage various senses, learn and practice new skills, and build relationships and social skills. Since children with autism often display a lack of spontaneous pretend play, selecting toys that promote constructive play can be challenging for parents.

While you are shopping for toys this holiday season, consider perusing the Toys “R” Us Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kids. For almost 20 years, Toys “R” Us has provided this free resource, which aids the selection of toys for children with disabilities. Using the guide, shoppers can identify toys that target a variety of skills including auditory, creativity, fine motor, gross motor, language, self-esteem, social, tactile, thinking, and visual skills. Furthermore, the digital version of the guide makes finding the right toy for each child simple by allowing shoppers to limit searches based on age range, gender, brand, theme, and price range. The guide also provides other valuable resources including tips for toy buying and safe playing for children with special needs.

This holiday season, select toys for your child that encourage constructive play, evoke imagination, and support development. To browse the electronic version of the Toys “R” Us Toy Guide for Differently Abled Kids click here.

Toys For Tots. We’re Raising Christmas Gifts!

All CARD offices around the U.S. are on a mission to raise as many toys possible for Toys for Tots Foundation.

We have been campaigning all month long internally and have invited the public to join in.

Find your local drop-off Toys for Tots location and help bring a smile to a child’s face this holiday season.

Doctor's Sued Over 'Dangerous' Autism Treatment

By Suzanne Oshinsky

The main thing that struck me after reading the article "Doctors Sued Over 'Dangerous' Autism Treatment" in the Chicago Breaking News was the difference in perspective over what is considered desperate and what is considered proactive when treating autism.

The delineating line seems to be fear or hope, depending on a person’s outlook in handling the diagnosis. While working on the Center for Autism and Related Disorders' (CARD) second documentary on autism, I interviewed many families, and found something in common with all of them. After receiving their pediatrician's diagnosis, regardless of whether their children were recovered or still in treatment, they all agreed that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) should be part of a multifaceted treatment plan. This meant figuring out what combinations of treatments were most effective, that each child is unique, and that there isn’t a blanket approach to treating autistic children. Since there isn’t a clear path to recovery there is an overwhelming amount of different treatments available that may or may not help. Deciding what treatments are worth and not worth trying is a difficult decision.

As with any part of parenting, whether the child is typical or a-typical, there should be unity in all decisions. It’s a difficult period because it requires constant communication and strength between the parental figures. Unfortunately, parents of children with autism have a high, 80% divorce rate. Part of that has to do with the fact that each parent must have the same conviction in treating the child.

It’s saddening to see in this article that two parents who love their child have such a staggering difference in opinion as to what is helpful or detrimental.

Again it seems like it has to do with outlook. The lens we use to see the world. What motivates a person, a parent; hope or despair?