Autism is a developmental disability where individuals are unable to successfully communicate and interact with the outside world. It emerges at 2 to 3 years old, although some symptoms can be seen as early as infancy. About 4 in 100,000 children are autistic, and it is 4 times more common in males.
Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist, identified autism as a mental disorder in 1943. It is characterized by meaningless repetition of body movements (e.g., swaying, arm flapping), activities (e.g., flipping a light switch); and words (also called echolalia). Language development is stunted, with some never learning to speak and others speaking in garbled phrases. Social skills are also very poor, such as an inability to make eye contact or a dislike of being touched. Another sign of autism is an obsession with routine, and anger when a small detail is changed or moved.
Some studies show that 75% of autistic individuals have mental retardation, but that could be due to the linguistic nature of standard intelligence tests. Most autistics do well in visual-spatial tests, and a few even show prodigious abilities in mathematics, rote memory and creative arts like music. These individuals are called autistic savants.
The causes of autism are still unclear, although some research shows that individuals who suffer from it have distinctive structural and functional brain differences including decreased blood flow in parts of the brain and significantly lower numbers of brain cells. The biggest debate regarding autism are whether it is primarily a genetic or environmental issue. Exponential increases in autism diagnoses points to environmental causes, unless the increase itself is the result of “wider net” diagnoses methods. The fact that family patterns of autism have been discovered in heredity points to genetic causes.
There is widespread debate about whether autism is linked to the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines given to very young children. Additionally, some believe that a child’s diet or even her level of heavy metals like mercury are prime causes.
Autism cannot be cured, though those with less severe symptoms can—with drugs and proper therapy—lead a highly functional life. Some treatments include behavior modification, medication, controlled diet and vitamin supplements, and vision therapy.
Web Resources On Autism
Autism Society of America
Book Resources On Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Other ASDs by Sicile-Kira and Grandin
The Autism Sourcebook : Everything You Need to Know About Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing by Karen Siff Exkorn