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Life StoryOct/Nov 2009 Issue

What Is Autism?

Autism is characterized by abnormalities of social interaction and communication, as well as highly repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it encompasses a broad range of symptoms and affects people differently.

In the mildest form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which includes Asperger’s Syndrome, individuals generally have language skills but their behavior may be odd and their interests very limited. At the other end of the spectrum, impairment can be severe and lifelong. Left untreated, ASD children will probably not develop effective social skills and may not learn to talk or behave appropriately.

Just 20 years ago, autism and related developmental disorders affected 1 in 5,000 children. Today, ASD affects one in 150 children, with a new diagnosis being made every 20 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Greater public awareness and wider diagnostic criteria do not nearly account for this sharp increase.

Before 1990, about two-thirds of children with autism were autistic from birth; only one-third regressed into the condition after the first birthday. In the 1980s, this trend reversed. The reversal coincides with an increase in infant vaccines but studies reveal no causal link. Researchers continue to study vaccines and their various components, along with other potential environmental culprits. For now, there is no definitive answer to what is behind the staggering increase in ASD cases.

The economic impact of the autism explosion is estimated at $90 billion. The emotional cost on the families of these children is incalculable.

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