Autism is a severe disorder of brain function marked by problems with socialcontact, intelligence, and language, together with ritualistic or compulsivebehavior and bizarre responses to the environment. Autism is a lifelong disorder that interferes with the ability to understand what is seen, heard, and touched. This can cause profound problems in personal behavior and in the ability to relate to others.

Autism is a brain disorder that affects the way the brain uses or transmits information. Studies have found abnormalities in several parts of the brain that almost certainly occurred during fetal development. The problem may be centered in the parts of the brain responsible for processing language and information from the senses.

There appears to be a strong genetic basis for autism. Identical twins are more likely to both be affected than non-identical twins. In a family with oneautistic child, the chance of having another child with autism is about 1 in20, much higher than in the normal population.

At least one group of researchers has found a link between an abnormal gene and autism. The gene may be just one of three to five genes that interact in some way to cause the condition. Scientists suspect that a faulty gene or genes might make a person vulnerable to develop autism in the presence of other factors, such as a chemical imbalance, viruses, chemicals, or a lack of oxygenat birth. In a few cases, autistic behavior is caused by a disease.

Autism occurs in as many as 1 or 2 per 1,000 children. It is found four timesmore often in boys (usually the first-born) and occurs around the world in people of all races and social backgrounds. Autism usually is evident in the first three years of life, although sometimes the condition is not diagnosed until a child enters school.

The severity of the condition varies among individuals, ranging from the mostsevere (extremely repetitive, self-injurious, and aggressive behavior) to very mild, resembling a personality disorder with some learning disability. About 10% of children with autism have an extraordinary ability in one area, such as in mathematics, memory, music, or art. Such children are known as "autistic savants" (formerly "idiot savants").

Profound problems with social interaction are the most common symptoms of autism. Infants with the disorder won't cuddle; they avoid eye contact and don'tseem to want or need physical affection.

The child with autism may not speak at all. If he does, it is often in singlewords. He may endlessly repeat words or phrases and may reverse pronouns. Bizarre behavior patterns are very common among autistic children and may include complex rituals, screaming fits, rhythmic rocking, arm flapping, finger twiddling, and crying without tears. Autistic children may play with their ownsaliva, feces, or urine. They may be self-destructive, biting their own hands, gouging at their eyes, pulling their hair, or banging their head.

Many autistic children seem overwhelmed by their own senses. A child with autism may ignore objects or become obsessed with them. Most autistic children appear to be moderately mentally retarded. They may giggle or cry for no reason, have no fear of real danger, but be terrified of harmless objects.

There is no medical test for autism. Because symptoms are so varied, the condition may go undiagnosed for some time or be confused with other diseases. Autism is diagnosed by observing the child's behavior, communication skills, and social interactions after medical tests have ruled out other possible causes of autistic symptoms.

There is no cure for autism. Treatments are aimed at reducing specific symptoms. Because the symptoms vary widely, there is no single approach that worksfor every person. A spectrum of interventions include training in music, listening, vision, speech and language, and senses. Special diets and medicationsmay also be prescribed.

Studies show that people with autism can improve significantly with proper treatment. A child with autism can learn best with special teachers in a structured program that emphasizes individual instruction, educational, and behavioral treatment.

No single medication has proved highly effective for the major features of autism. A variety of drugs can control self-injurious, aggressive, and other difficult behaviors. Drugs also can control epilepsy, which afflicts up to 20%of people with autism. Most experts recommend a complex treatment regimen that begins early and continues through the teenage years. Behavioral therapiesare used in conjunction with medications.

While there is no cure, with appropriate treatment the negative behaviors ofautism may improve. Earlier generations placed autistic children in institutions. Today, even severely disabled children can be helped in a less restrictive environment to develop to their highest potential. Many become more responsive to others as they learn to understand the world around them, and some can lead nearly normal lives.

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