Autism is one of five disorders under the general classification of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning it affects everyone differently; some are mildly affected, but most are significantly impaired and require lifelong supervision and care. Many children with autism will never be able to tell their parents they love them.
Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, affecting an estimated 1 in 166 births according to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention. This means that as many as 1.5 million Americans have some form of autism, making it the second most common developmental disability after mental retardation. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10 to 17 percent per year. Yet despite the strikingly high and increasing prevalence, autism research remains one of the lowest funded areas of medical research by both public and private sources.
There is no known single cause for autism, but brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in autistic children. Researchers are investigating a number of theoretical causes, including a possible link between heredity, genetics and other medical problems. While no single gene has been identified as causing autism, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities in many families, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder.
Autism can usually be detected by the time a child is 3 years old, and in some cases as early as 18 months; however, it is estimated that only 50 percent of children are diagnosed before kindergarten. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth; but in most cases the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child lags further behind other children the same age. Some parents report the change as being sudden; in other cases, there is a gradual leveling of development.
All children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) demonstrate deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. In addition, they often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. A child may be autistic if he or she:
Does not babble, point, or make meaningful gestures by one year of age
- Does not respond to his or her name
- Loses language or social skills
- Makes poor eye contact
- Doesn't seem to know how to play with toys, excessively organizes toys, or is overly attached to one particular toy or object
- Doesn't smile
- Insists on sameness and is resistant to change
- Repeats words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
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