What Exactly is Autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person's ability to interact. There are several different forms of the disorder and the entire range is grouped under the title Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
Autism often first appears in early childhood, usually before age three. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child's ability to communicate, interact, and be successful in peer and family relationships, as well as processing and interpreting activities of daily life.
The number of children diagnosed with autism in the U.S. continues to rise. The latest estimate is that one in 88 American children has some form of austism spectrum disorder. It isn't clear whether the rise in numbers is due to better diagnosis and reporting, or to a real increase in the number of cases, or both.
Austism has no single cause, but the latest research seems to suggest that multiple genes, acting alone or when influenced by environmental factors, are responsible for the different presentations and severity of the disorderd. One environmental factor that has NOT been proven to have a link to autism is childhood vaccinations, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. No reliable study in the United States or Europe has shown a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. In January, the Institute of Medicine issued a "white paper" confirming the safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines.
While there is no cure for autism, intensive, early, "wrap-around" treatement, including medical evaluation, education, behavioral intervention, and family support, can make a big difference in the lives of many children with the disorder. Children with autism generally show some signs of delayed development by 18 months.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now strongly recommends that all children be screened for symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders by 18 months of age. One of the most widely-used tools is the M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) questionnaire, which most physicians now regularly include in the 18-month well-child exam.
Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Institute of Mental Health