Autism is a complex developmental disorder. The symptoms of autism typically appear in the first three years of life. It is a neurological disorder that impacts the development of language and communication skills as well as social interaction and relatedness. In addition, individuals with autism may demonstrate repetitive stereotyped behaviors, unusual responses to sensory stimulation, restricted interests and a resistance to change.
Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) which is a set of disorders characterized by severe and pervasive impairment across several areas. Asperger’s disorder, Childhood disintegrative disorder, Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Rett’s disorder are the remaining four PDDs. Typically, Autism, Asperger’s disorder and PDD-NOS are referred to as the Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Recent research has revealed that symptoms of autism may be present as early as 6-12 months of age. The earliest symptoms include a pronounced lack of social orienting, failure to respond to name, and lack of a social smile. By the second year of development, there may be limited eye contact, odd or unusual repetitive use of objects or toys, delayed or absent speech development as well as a preference to play along.
Autism affects boys 4-5 more frequently than girls. There is no known cause of autism. It is believed to have a strong genetic component. In a family with one autistic child, the chance of having another child with autism is about 1 in 20, much higher than in the normal population.
The symptoms of autism vary widely across individuals. This may be due to issues such as level of cognitive functioning or the presence of other co-morbid conditions (e.g., anxiety, OCD, Tourette’s). It is currently believed that approximately 50 % of individuals with autism may also have mental retardation. This number ranges from 20 to 80 %, depending upon the source.