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What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder which is being diagnosed much more frequently today than it was ten years ago. Previously autism was thought to be a rare condition, occurring in two to five out of every ten thousand births. Currently, the CDC estimates the incidence to be approximately one in one hundred and sixty-six births. It is not clear why there is such a large increase in the percentage of new cases every year since the early nineties. Some theorize that it is because the diagnostic criteria has been broadened, or that there is a better awareness and identification of new autism cases, while others theorize that there is a true increase in the actual incidence, related to some environmental factor.


Autism is frequently referred to as a "spectrum disorder," meaning that someone can be afflicted severely or mildly, or to any degree in between. A mild form of autism is called Asperger’s Syndrome, in which a person has relatively normal cognitive and language abilities. In Asperger’s Syndrome, a person's social abilities are impaired. Even people with the mildest forms of autism can be severely limited by the disorder without appropriate treatment.  For example, many people with Asperger’s syndrome have great difficulty in daily living skills, relationships, and employment.

The diagnosis of autism is made based on testing and observation by a specialist such as a Developmental Pediatrician, a Child Psychologist, or a Pediatric Neurologist. Children with autism exhibit a series of abnormalities and delays--typically in communication, social, self-help, cognition, and play. They often display self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking, hand flapping, spinning, toe-walking, and lining up of objects. Sometimes they engage in repetitive and ritualistic behaviors, and have odd body movements. Autistic children often appear to be far more interested in things than in people. Parents frequently think their child with autism is deaf because he or she will not answer when called. Some children with autism are aggressive to others, throw frequent severe tantrums, or display self-injurious behaviors. Children with autism often do not understand facial expressions or gestures and often display non-typical eye contact.

About a third of all children with autism appear to develop normally or nearly normally in infancy, only to regress during the toddler months. Certain rare diseases can cause autistic behaviors, such as Rhett‘s syndrome, Fragile X, or Tuberous Sclerosis.  However, in the vast majority of cases of autism, there is no discernible cause. One thing researchers do know is that there is a strong genetic predisposition towards the disorder. There is a greater (though relatively small) likelihood of having a second child with autism if you already have one child with the disorder.

To date, there is no cure for autism, though researchers are coming closer to determining what goes wrong in the developing child‘s brain, which might give us clues as to possible medical treatments in the future. In the meantime, many children are benefiting from a form of therapy known as Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention, to the point that they are achieving normal or near-normal functioning; something that was never thought of as possible in the past.

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, which means that for most of those afflicted, autism is lifelong. Therefore, Friends of Autism extends our support beyond childhood and into young adulthood when special education and other programs have often ended. Or programs include grants to organizations which support young adults with autism and training programs for employers and first responders dealing with adults on the autism spectrum.