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Autism is a complex neurological disorder characterized by significant difficulties with repetitive/restrictive behavior, communication and socialization. It is a part of a group of Pervasive Developmental Disorders which also include Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified. These disorders may also be called Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASDs. Autism is considered “pervasive” because it affects many aspects of an individual’s life. It is considered a “developmental disorder” because it occurs very early in life (often prior to the age of three) and may be apparent from early infancy or may begin to manifest after a period of apparently typical development. Experts estimate that Autism is diagnosed in 1 out of every 88 children in the United States; 1 in every 54 boys. It is diagnosed in males four times more often than in females. Autism occurs regardless of race, religion, income level or other societal factors.

Autism is a life-long disorder that exists along a continuum of functioning levels – from those who have mild symptoms and can function independently in society – to those with severe delays in all areas of development who require continuous supervision. Regardless of the nature of their delays, many individuals who are diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder can make substantial gains with appropriate treatment.

What are common signs of Autism?

The first signs of Autism usually appear before the age of three. The earliest signs of Autism typically include:

  • Poor eye contact
  • Lack of pointing
  • Difficulty in the use and understanding of language
  • Unusual play or lack of play

Other common signs include:

  • Poor social skills
  • Over- or under-sensitivity to sound, sight, taste, touch or smell
  • Repetitive movements (hand flapping, body rocking)
  • Difficulty with changes in routine or surroundings
  • Challenging behaviors such as aggression, self-injury or severe withdrawal
  • Echolalia (repeats words instead of responding)
  • Not responding when called by name or appearing to be deaf

How is Autism Diagnosed?

In New York State, Autism can only be diagnosed by a licensed psychologist or physician. A diagnosis cannot be made through medical tests, but rather, is made on the presence or absence of certain observable behaviors. Qualified professionals should perform a comprehensive evaluation to determine the presence of symptoms and the impact that tese symptoms have on an individual’s life. There are many empirically-validated diagnostic instruments that a professional may use to make a diagnosis – see Diagnosing Autism fact sheet. Multiple symptoms must be found in all three core areas- socialization, communication and repetitive/restrictive behaviors and must have a substantial impact on an individual’s daily life.

What causes Autism?

No one really knows what causes Autism, but a variety of theories exist. A substantial amount of research is being conducted to determine the biological causes of Autism, but a single cause has not been identified. Some cases of Autism have been found to have a genetic component, although a single gene is not responsible for the disorder. Pervasive developmental disorders do occur with increased frequency in identical twins. Many children with pervasive developmental disorders also have seizure disorders. What is known at this time is that Autism is NOT caused by poor or inconsistent parenting styles, inadequate prenatal care or specific environmental factors.

What are effective early interventions for Autism?

There is no cure for Autism but with early, intensive intervention individuals can make substantial gains. The most effective approaches require large amounts of time and effort from therapists, teachers and parents. Interventions that have been found to be most effective for Autism are those based on principals of Applied Behavior Analysi (ABA). Effective ABA programs are those that begin early in life, target all areas of development and are delivered intensively (between 25-40 hours per week). The focus of treatment includes teaching the child in all areas of deficit, in order to build independence and allow him/her to learn, play and work in the community. Research has found that the prognosis is greatly improved for those children who develop speech before five years of age, have an IQ in the normal range and who receive intensive and early behavioral treatment prior to, or during, the preschool years. Currently there are no medications that can cure Autism spectrum disorders, but in some cases medication can treat some of the symptoms associated with Autism including aggression and anxiety.

Where can I get more information online?

American Academy of Pediatricshttp://www.aap.org

National Institute of Healthhttp://www.nichd.nih.gov

Autism Society of Americahttp://www.autism-society.org

Centers for Disease Control - http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html