Autism, which is a range of conditions known as autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, affects how a person perceives the world, communicates and interacts with others. Compared with other public health problems, such as asthma or clinical depression, autism is relatively rare. Fewer than one percent of the 4 million or so children born in the United States each year eventually are diagnosed as having ASDs, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No Known Cause
Even so, autism is widely feared, in part because of the stereotype: People with ASD are helpless misfits afflicted with bizarre behavioral quirks and wondrous abilities (you'll recall the fictional Raymond "Rain Man" Babbitt's ability to count cards at the blackjack table). In reality, however, although some people with ASDs are severely impaired, others manage to live with some degree of independence. And at least a few -- such as scientist, author and autism activist Temple Grandin -- have made important contributions to society.
Part of what makes autism scary is that scientists can't yet say exactly what causes it. According to the National Institutes of Health, there's considerable evidence that it's genetic in origin, and that complex interactions of a dozen or more genes on different chromosomes may be involved. Some research suggests that viruses or other environmental factors may have a role. Gender may also be a factor, since boys are three to four times more likely than girls to develop ASDs. One thing scientists are sure of, however, is that autism is not caused by childhood vaccines. That fear was first raised in the late 1990s by a British medical journal article. It was later determined that the article was based on fudged data. Extensive follow-up studies have failed to show any link.
Signs and Symptoms
Children with ASDs often have symptoms by the time they're 18 months old, such as problems making eye contact and responding to their own names. Others begin to develop language skills and then mysteriously lose them. As they grow into childhood, other signs emerge, such as difficulty understanding others' feelings, violent outbursts and repetitive behaviors, like obsessively repeating words or continually arranging pencils or other items in patterns. At the more severe end of the spectrum, sufferers are never able to learn to talk and will communicate their emotional states by flapping their arms or injuring themselves.
How It's Diagnosed
There's no blood test or scanning device that can detect autism. Instead, health care providers diagnose it by questioning parents about a child's behavior and observing how they perform on developmental milestones compared to nondisabled children.
When a child is diagnosed with an ASD, it's natural for parents to feel frustrated and helpless. The condition sometimes improves with age, and it's important for parents to remember that while there's no cure for autism, much can be done to help a person cope with ASD. For example, a speech-language therapist can enable an autistic person to improve his or her social skills and ability to use language in a way that others can understand. An occupational therapist may be able to find a child a specially designed computer device that will enable him or her to communicate, if he or she is not able to speak. Under federal law, school districts must provide whatever services an autistic student needs to get an education in the least restrictive environment possible. Parents also can get information, advocacy help and emotional support from organizations like the Autism Society of America.