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What is autism?

Autism is one of a group of disorders often described as developmental disabilities. Other disorders in this group are mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning disorders.


Two types of causal agents have been identified - brain damage, and genetic factors and these are based on certain lines of evidence. So far, while brain lesions have increasingly been found in autistic children, no consistent pattern has emerged and children with and without lesions do not differ symptomatically. The results of many investigations have been inconclusive or unable to be generalised and these require further clarification.

High rates of social and communication deficits are found in the relatives of autistic patients. Available evidence suggests that there may have been some problems in pregnancy, or the early days of life, in children who later manifest infantile autism, but such problems are not consistent, or specific, to autism. Of these the most commonly reported are infections and injury, but others include advanced maternal age, bleeding in pregnancy, mother's medication use and infant suffering respiratory distress syndrome, among others.

Causation cannot be derived from any of these, and there is no confirmed aetiology of autism The conditions listed are just signals that the pregnancy was not optimal, however, most of these conditions do not lend themselves easily to medical intervention

Symptoms and characteristics

Autism presents with a variety of symptoms that have come to be known as the autistic spectrum of disorders and which have an incidence of 1 in 1000. The degree to which symptoms present in a case depends on many factors including the age and sex of the individual.

Behavioural and social problems

Autistic children are often unresponsive to social stimuli. As infants, they may resist cuddling; as toddlers and pre-schoolers, they may fail to turn around when called, or to look at a person who is trying to engage them in conversation. In general, autistic children seem unaware of other people's feeling towards them and of the negative impact of their own behaviour on others. They also interpret tone of voice and facial expression inadequately.
As children, autistics do not know how to make friends and engage other children in play.

When young, they do not seem distressed by their social isolation but ostracism by peers does become a source of distress to higher-functioning, older, autistic children. These children then make often unsuccessful attempts to socialise.

At the other end of the spectrum, some autistic children are inappropriately affectionate and will kiss strangers. Others show an exaggerated and exclusive attachment to their mother: they do not tolerate separation and insist on being carried long after they are able to walk.

Language and communication deficits

All pre-school autistic children have some type of developmental language disorder (dysphasia), however lack of communication, rather than language, seems to characterise autism. Many autistic children are mute and seem to understand very little of what is said to them because they are word-deaf . Others acquire language late and speak unintelligibly in short sentences with incorrect structure.

Autistic children may at first produce a fluent, unintelligible jargon which contains pieces of memorised television commercials or pat phrases (delayed repetition of what others say). Still other children speak early but incessantly, in a singsong voice and characteristically speak to themselves. Non-verbal communication and language use are also deficient in autistic children.

Other psychological characteristics

Autistic children engage in a restricted and odd range of activities and interests. They regularly display stereotypies such as flapping of the hands when excited, running around in circles, rockin

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