Autism is a complex pervasive developmental disorder that involves the functioning of the brain. It is a neurological disability and not simply a psychiatric disorder, even though typical characteristics include problems with social relationships and emotional communication, as well as stereotyped patterns of interests, activities and behaviors. It also involves problems with sensory integration. Typically, it appears during the first three years of life. It is estimated that it occurs in as many as 2 to 6 in 1,000 individuals, and it is 4 times more prevalent in males than females (from The Autism Society of America: ). It is most prevalent in Caucasian males.

Autism is treatable (but not curable as of now, although there is an organization called "Cure Autism Now"). Early diagnosis and intervention are vital to the future development of the child.

A related disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, is a high-functioning form of autism, but this is not necessarily the case. The chief difference between Kanner's Syndrome, or classical autism, and Aspergers' is that in Asperger's there is no significant delay in speech, and intelligence is average or above. In Kanner's autism there is a significant delay in language and usually lower-than average intelligence; Kanner's autism with IQ<80 is referred to as "low-functioning autism", while Kanner's with IQ>80 is referred to as "high functioning autism".

Another view of these disorders is that they are on a continuum, so can be known as autistic spectrum disorders. Another related continuum is Sensory Integration Dysfunction which is about how well we integrate the information we receive from our senses. Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, and Sensory Integration Dysfunction are all closely related and overlap.

Some high-achieving individuals are thought to have suffered from autism to some degree. However, autism is more frequently found in individuals with learning disabilities.

There are two main types of autism, regressive autism and early infantile autism. Early infantile autism is present at birth while regressive autism begins at 18 months.

There has been an explosion worldwide in reported cases of autism over the last ten years. There has been considerable speculation as to why this might be, with no conclusive proof emerging around any theory. However, studies have ruled out the speculation that the rise is attributable to an improvement in diagnostic methods.

In the last decade, the population of the United States has increased by 13%. There has been an increase in non-autism-related disabilities of 16%. The increase in autism is 173%.

Some things to mention here:

  • the idiot savant phenomenon occasionally seen in people with autism

  • autism, asperger increasingly seen as a continuum of social capability

  • recent (very controversial) research in the UK suggesting a possible link between autism and the MMR vaccine

  • the analysis of autism as "mind blindness" -- the inability to create models of other people's thoughts. the typical example of this is "where does X look for the object they stored, but which was moved by Y" -- see theory of mind

  • recent claims that autism is probably precipitated by mercury/heavy metal toxicity (is there any confirmation for this in the mainstream medical literature?)

  • increasingly common claims of sucessful treatment of autism in children with the gluten-free, casein-free diet & mercury chelation therapy

Both Oliver Sacks and Torey Hayden have written about their autistic patients or pupils, respectively. Temple Grandin has also written about her own life. Donna Williams (Autism:an inside-out approach, ISBN 1 85302 387 6) gives an interesting perspective on the experience of the person with autism.

See also

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