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Autism is a brain developmental disorder that appears in childhood and continues on without remission. It is one of the five pervasive developmental disorders, the others being Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.
Autism covers a wide spectrum from either low- to high-functioning autism or syndromal and non-syndromal autism, the former indicative of overlap with mental retardation or congenital diseases.
Autism is not based on a single symptom but rather on a pattern. The main characteristics are impairments in social interaction and communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. Children should be screened for autism if they are not babbling by twelve months, not gesturing by twelve months, not using single words by sixteen months, not using two-word spontaneous phrases by twenty-four months or if they have any loss of language or social skills.
Autistic people often lack the skin of intuition for others and won't make large social faux pas because of this deficiency. In childhood, they are less likely to make eye contact or respond to social stimuli, and when they are older, they are likely to approach strangers inappropriately spontaneously.
A third to a half of people with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet communication needs. They are less likely to make requests or share experiences and sometimes will just repeat what others say. In youth, their gestures may not match up with what they are saying.
There are six common repetitive behaviours of autistic people:
- stereotypy: purposeless movements
- compulsive behaviour: the appearance of following rules (i.e., arranging objects in a certain way, lining items up)
- sameness: resistance to change
- ritualistic behaviour: the performance of daily activities the same way each time (i.e., eating only Cheerios)
- restricted behaviour: limit in focus, interest or activity
- self-injury: hurting oneself
Autistic people sometimes respond oddly to sensory stimuli, have issues with complex memory tasks and sometimes even motor problems. Atypical eating behaviours, closely tied with the ritualistic behaviour mentioned above, are found so often in autistic children that it used to be a diagnostic indicator. Sleep problems are common at around two-thirds of children experiencing them.
There is a strong genetic basis for autism, but some research has made mention of the hypothesis that autism is caused by deletions or duplications during cell meiosis in foetal development. The teratogens, or agents that cause birth defects, associated with autism appear to act during the first eight weeks from conception. Most claims of environmental factors that cause autism have not been backed by any scientific evidence.
There is no cure for autism, but there are supportive therapy options available, most of which focus on lessening associated deficits and family distress. Many children with autism participate in special education and behavioural therapy programs to improve functioning and decrease symptom severity.
In terms of medication, more than half of American autistics are prescribed either psychoactive or anticonvulsant drugs.