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Autism refers to a spectrum of neurologic conditions in which the primary or most noticeable component is disordered verbal and nonverbal communication with other people. It has its onset before 2-1/2 years of age. The incidence in children is 3 or 4 cases per 10,000 children; there is about a 4 to 1 male:female predominance.
Autism itself falls under the broader umbrella of pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs). These include
Most common symptoms and signs are
Autistic children were once considered to be all uniformly retarded and nonverbal. Study and better diagnostic classification of these children shows that there can be a large range of language ability, intelligence, and social communication ability.
The cause of autism is unknown. Genetic factors are probably to blame. Despite ideas popular in the past, it is now known that parents do not cause autism in their children.
There is no single best treatment for autism and other PDDs. Therapy is both specialized and highly individualized for each child's needs. Early detection and treatment of PDDs is known to improve long term outcome. Children entering treatment under age three do better than those who are not referred for treatment until age 5 or later.
The prognosis for autistic children is "guarded." While some children may grow up to live independently in the community, for some, institutional care is the ultimate outcome. Children with higher intelligence, functional speech, and less bizarre symptoms and behavior have better outcomes.
Parents and physicians should be aware of certain warning signs that require immediate referral for investigation:
Chris Johnson, M.D. "Screening and Diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorders" Neurology 2000; 55:468-479
Further information on autism can be obtained through the Autism Society of America.