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Learning more about Autism

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Cases of autism are on the rise across the country. And many Americans find they have more questions than answers regarding this mental disorder.

Autism is not one single disorder, but refers to a group of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders. At one end of the spectrum are children with little impairment. At the other end, children can be severely limited in their communication skills and social abilities.

"It affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, says Dr. Chris P. Johnson, pediatric specialist and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Question: How common is autism?

Answer: As many as one in 91 children is autistic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Recent studies suggest boys may be four times more likely than girls to develop the condition. Girls tend to have more severe symptoms.

Question: What causes autism?

Answer: Although doctors don't know exactly what causes it, some research has found differences in brain chemicals caused by a combination of genes may be involved.

Question: Is there a medical test to diagnose autism?

Answer: No, but there are several behavioral signs that indicate a child could have the condition and needs to be evaluated immediately by a health care provider.

These are behavioral signs that should be checked out:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months or thereafter

  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months or thereafter

  • No babbling by 12 months

  • No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving by 12 months

  • No words by 16 months

  • Any loss of babbling or speech or social skills at any age

"Because there are no blood tests, X-rays, or visual clues, such as how a child looks, that indicate autism, it's easy for a diagnosis to be missed," Dr. Johnson says. "However, in 2007 the AAP recommended all pediatricians screen children for autism at 9, 18, and 24 months, regardless of whether there are any symptoms."

Question: Do all children with autism behave the same?

Answer: No, the symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some children with the disorder may rarely speak and have trouble learning how to read and write. Others can attend and succeed at public schools.

Question: What can parents do to help their child?

Answer: Research has shown parents who learn about the condition and its treatments can improve their child's functioning and behavior. Children who take part in special programs can often learn to cope in normal life situations. These programs partner a teacher with a small number of children.

"Children who participate in structured programs, including speech, occupational, and cognitive therapy, tend to do well," Dr. Johnson says. "Effective programs focus on developing the child's communication, social, and learning skills."

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