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What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that usually shows symptoms between 18 and 36 months. It interferes with a person's ability to communicate with and relate to others. Autism is a lifelong condition that results in some degree of social isolation.

More than 500,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with autism; it may occur in as many as one in 500 individuals and is four times more prevalent in boys than girls. In the last five years, autism has become the third most common form of developmental delay. Because there is nothing abnormal about the child's physical appearance, this disorder can be difficult to recognize.

Autism affects how a person perceives and processes sensory information. Signs of autism almost always develop before a child is three years old, although the condition is frequently not diagnosed until later. Typically, parents first become concerned when they notice their toddler does not respond or interact like other children of the same age. Toddlers with autism do not babble or talk normally, and may seem to have hearing problems.

The severity of autism varies. Some individuals need assistance in almost all aspects of their daily lives, while others are able to function at a very high level and can even attend school in a regular classroom. Although it is difficult to determine, studies show that below-normal intelligence occurs in about 70% of autistic children. In addition, the social functioning of autistic children is less than what is expected for their IQ levels.

What causes autism?

Most research suggests that people with autism have irregular brain structures. More study is needed to determine the cause of these irregularities, but current research indicates they are inherited. Parents who have had one child with autism are more likely than other couples to have a second child with autism.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Children exhibit mild to severe symptoms of delay, in many combinations and varying degrees of severity, although in all cases, the ability to communicate and social interaction are the most impaired functions.

Some examples of communication difficulties autistic children experience include trouble connecting a person's gesture, such as a smile or frown, with the person's feelings. It is difficult, too, for autistic children to link words with their meanings.

Autism also creates a confusing world of senses. Quiet sounds may be loud and distracting to a child with autism. A sudden noise could be terrifying. A person's touch might set off a wave of strong sensations.

Children with autistic characteristics prefer to play alone and seldom play fantasy/imaginary games. Many autistic children engage in repetitive movements like rocking or hand flapping, and they sometimes have tantrums with self-inflicted injuries.

How is autism diagnosed?

Autism cannot currently be diagnosed at birth or through prenatal screening. A health professional will evaluate a child suspected of having autism or another developmental delay using the diagnostic guidelines established by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). These criteria are generally used to evaluate a child for autism who does not interact with or socialize normally for his or her age. A child may also have hearing and other tests to make sure developmental delays aren't the result of another condition with similar symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment of autism is important to make the most of the child's potential.

How is autism treated?

Behavioral training, specialized therapy, parent education and support, and sometimes medications can improve an autistic child's problem behaviors, communication skills, and socialization. A child with autism responds best to a highly structured, specialized educational program tailored to his or her individual needs. However, specific treatment varies depending on the range of individual symptoms, which can combine in many different ways and change over time.

Helping your child

You play an extremely important role in helping your child develop. Join your child in play, and when you can, lead them past their repetitive behaviors and rituals and guide them to activity with more variety. For example, you can pace around the room with them, but then lead them into another room. You need to enter their world to help guide them into yours.

Verbal praise for work well done is sometimes meaningless for children with autism. Find other ways to reinforce good behaviors and promote self-esteem. After your child has successfully completed a task, for example, give him extra time to play with a favorite toy.

Children and adults with autism learn better when information is presented visually as well as verbally. Try to include pictures and gestures when speaking with your autistic child, to increase the child's communication skills.

Finding a good early intervention program can be the most important thing you do for your child. The initial focus should be to ‘break through' the child's social interaction barriers and emphasize communication with other people whether by pointing, using pictures and sometimes sign language, as well as speech.

During adolescence, some aggressive behaviors can be increasingly difficult to handle and can be coupled with depression. Ask your child's doctor for help with appropriate pharmacological, psychological, and educational interventions.

As with any child, the future is unpredictable. Some children with autism will grow up to lead independent lives. Others will always need supported living and working environments. All children with autism need the nurturing guidance of parents, teachers, physicians, and caregivers who will help them experience fulfilling, happy lives.