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What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a processing problem in which sensory information becomes scrambled and distorted. Autism is one of five disorders that fall under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development.” It is a spectrum condition - it affects each person more variously than most other PDDs, both in intensity and how it affects each core area. Autists' range of IQ is similar to that of non-autistic people. 

Leo Kanner in the US and Hans Asperger in Switzerland discovered the condition independently in 1943. Aspergers Syndrome tends to be more high-functioning than Kanner's rarer "classic" early infantile autism. There is a large continuum in between the two extremes. Autism strikes seemingly normally developing children sometime between 18 months and 3 years old, sometimes later. Early infantile autism presents with a deterioration or loss of speech--in some cases, a failure to develop speech. Any remaining speech becomes echolalic, fragmented and ritualistic. The child loses interest in social contact and develops repetitive rituals; self-stimulating behavior, such as hand-flapping or head banging; self-comforting behavior, such as rocking and spinning (autism rocks?); and self-injuring behaviors.

People with autism spectrum disorders often suffer obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety. Anxiety and panic can sometimes manifest in "melt-downs". Change of routine, sudden loud noises, flashing lights, and offensive smells are just a few of the things that can trigger a meltdown.

Autism can adversely affect the following areas: 

• verbal and non-verbal communication - delayed language skills, difficulty reading non-verbal cues, echolalia, peculiar vocal modulation; 
• executive function - difficulty changing focus quickly, multi-tasking, navigating transitions, tuning out obnoxious stimuli, poor working memory;
• social cognitive - difficulty with joint attention, being flexible about changes; 
• sensory integration - difficulty tolerating certain lighting conditions or colors, odors, timbres, flavors and textures;
• coordination and balance challenges. 

Positive attributes include:

• extreme focus on areas of interest,
• inductive approach to thinking,
• social directness,
• attention to detail,
• ability to distinguish subtle differences in sensory input--such as flavors, scents or musical timbres. 

Four out of five autists are boys. About 40 percent of people with the condition suffer some degree of mental retardation. A good prognosis depends more on early intervention than on the initial severity of the condition.

Nobody knows for sure what causes autism, though many causes have been postulated, from an atrophied cerebellum to food allergies or a reaction to trace amounts of mercury in some mumps-measles-rubella vaccines. The condition seems to be genetic.

Nearly 1 in 150 births result in some form of autism. Oregon's rate of diagnosis is about 1 in 91 students. The rate amoung military families is 1 in 83.

See up to date info on prevalance here.

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