By: Michael Kabel


Autism is a developmental disorder that strikes six out of every thousand children in the United States. It's one of the largest public concerns, especially for families and parents. Sometimes called "classical autism," it's one of a symptom of related disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASDs.


Autism symptoms are marked and often startling to behold. They usually begin around the age of three years old and continue throughout the patient's lifetime. While the effects are often debilitating, great strides have been made to help autism sufferers live a productive and happy life. Autism patients and their families are quick to point out that autism is not a disability but rather simply a disease.


Autism and its related disorders.


Autism and its related Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD's) are characterized by the presence of a set of symptoms and conditions. Of the others, Asperger's Syndrome is most like classical autism and is sometimes described as a milder form of autism itself. Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder are also similar. Sometimes mild cases are grouped into a miscellany diagnosis called PDD-NOS, or PDD-Not Otherwise Specified. These conditions may have similar symptoms but different causes.


It's important to understand autism is a spectrum disorder because the number and severity of symptoms greatly vary from patient to patient. Even patients with very similar diagnoses can have vastly different symptoms.


Autism has a strong hereditary component. Male children are more than four times likely to have it than females. Autistic children are considered at higher risk for several serious learning disabilities, including Tourette syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Martin-Bell syndrome (a leading cause of mental retardation.) Finally, up to thirty percent of children with autism also develop epilepsy before becoming adults.


Autism and its symptoms


Perhaps the most prevalent early warning sign in autistic children is a lack of social interaction when still in infancy. Autistic babies will retreat or avoid social contact with parents. They may also develop normally at first but then withdraw from socializing when invited to do so.


Autistic children may also participate in compulsive behavior such as stacking or lining up blocks and other nursery room objects, or objects left around the house. Such behavior appeals to their minds for very obscure reasons that are difficult for researchers to understand.


Other children may rock their bodies or wave their hands in seemingly endless repetitive motion. This condition, called stereotypy, may also include attempts by autistic children to bite, claw, or scratch their own skin.


Restricted behavior includes an insistence on the same ordering or numbering of events over and over again. The autistic child will never grow bored or lose interest in the events as they unfold. Moreover, they will become visibly emotional and upset if the order or sequence is changed or overthrown.


Making the diagnosis


Doctors are extremely cautious in making the autism diagnosis, often enlisting the aid of several specialists. This team normally includes a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a speech therapist. The child's hearing is also tested, as the effects of hearing problems can sometimes mimic the effects of social withdrawal.


Nevertheless, parents need to monitor their child for the behavior that indicates autism cluster symptoms, particularly in their children under three years of age.