Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms
for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These
disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in
social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and
repetitive behaviors. They include autistic disorder, Rett
syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive
developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and
Asperger's Syndrome. ASD can be associated with intellectual
disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and
physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal
disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music,
math and art.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain
development. However, the most obvious signs and symptoms of autism
tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age.
How Common Is Autism?
Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on
the autism spectrum -- a 600 percent increase in prevalence over
the past two decades. Careful research shows that this increase is
only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies
also show that autism is three to four times more common among boys
than girls. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys is diagnosed with
autism in the United States.
More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with
childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or pediatric AIDS combined. ASD
affects an estimated 3 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of
millions worldwide. Moreover, government autism statistics suggest
that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in
recent years. There is no established explanation for this
continuing increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental
influences are two reasons often considered.
What Causes Autism?
Not long ago, the answer to this question would have been "we have
no idea." Research is now delivering the answers. First
and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just
as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years,
scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or
mutations, associated with autism. A small number of these
are sufficient to cause autism by themselves. Most cases of
autism, however, appear to be caused by a combination of autism
risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain
In the presence of a genetic predisposition to autism, a number
of nongenetic, or "environmental," stresses appear to further
increase a child's risk. The clearest evidence of these autism risk
factors involves events before and during birth. They include
advanced parental age at time of conception (both mom and dad),
maternal illness during pregnancy and certain difficulties during
birth, particularly those involving periods of oxygen deprivation
to the baby's brain. It is important to keep in mind that these
factors, by themselves, do not cause autism. Rather, in combination
with genetic risk factors, they appear to modestly increase
A small but growing body of research suggests that autism risk
is less among children whose mothers took prenatal vitamins
(containing folic acid) in the months before and after
Increasingly, researchers are looking at the role of the immune
system in autism.
What Does It Mean to Be "On the
Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism
spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and
academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average
intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take
deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and "atypical" ways
of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant
disability and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent
of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate
using other means.
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