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Autism, also called autistic disorder, appears in early childhood, usually before age 3.  Autism prevents children and adolescents from interacting normally with other people and affects almost every aspect of their social and psychological development.

What are the signs of autism?

Autism has a wide variety of characteristics ranging in intensity from mild to severe. One child with autism does not behave like another child with the same diagnosis. Children and adolescents with autism typically:

  • Have difficulty communicating with others.
  • Exhibit repetitious behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, head banging, or touching or twirling objects.
  • Have a limited range of interests and activities.
  • May become upset by a small change in their environment or daily routine.

In addition to these characteristics, some children with autism experience hypersensitivity to hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Symptoms of autism can be seen in early infancy, but the condition also may appear after months of normal development. In most cases, however, it is not possible to identify a specific event that triggers the disorder.

How common is autism?

Studies estimate that as many as 12 in every 10,000 children have autism or a related condition. Autism is three times more common in boys than in girls (National Institutes of Health, 2001).
What causes autism?
Researchers are unsure about what causes autism. Several studies suggest that autism might be caused by a combination of biological or environmental factors, or both, including viral exposure before birth, a problem with the immune system, or genetics. Many recently published scientific investigations have examined the possible connection between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. At this time, though, the available data do not appear to support a causal link.

Studies of families and twins suggest a genetic basis for the disorder.

Some studies have found that the brains of people with autism may function differently from those that are considered "normal." Research suggests that an abnormal slowing down of brain development before birth may cause autism. Studies also are looking at how autism-related problems in brain development may affect behavior later in childhood.

Chemicals in the brain also may play a role in autism. As a normal brain develops, the level of serotonin, a chemical found in the brain, declines. In some children with autism, however, serotonin levels do not decline. Researchers are investigating whether this happens only to children with autism or whether other factors are involved.

What help is available for families?

Since brain development can be influenced during early childhood, the treatment of autism has a greater chance of success when initiated as early as possible, and when children with autism are treated early, the cost of long-term care may be reduced. Services and treatments include:

  • Training in communication, social, learning, and self-help skills.
  • Programs in which other children help to teach children with autism.
  • Parent training.
  • Medications to reduce symptoms related to self-injury, seizures, digestive difficulties, and attention problems.

When services are started soon after a child is diagnosed with autism, the child's language, social, and academic skills and abilities may be greatly improved. On the other hand, some children and adolescents experience negative side effects from autism medications.

What can parents do?

Parents or other caregivers concerned about a child who shows symptoms of autism should:

  • Talk with a psychologist about their concerns.  She can determine if the symptoms are caused by autism, a related disorder, or another condition and provide treatment.
  • Get accurate information from libraries, hotlines, or other sources.
  • Ask questions about treatments and services.
  • Talk to other families in their communities who are coping with autism.
  • Find family network organizations.