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Autism is a rare, severe developmental disorder that begins before four years of age. The condition appears as a group of symptoms, the most notable of which is an inability to relate socially to other people. True autism, also called early infantile autism or infantile autism, occurs in about 1 child in every 700. Boys are more commonly affected than girls. There is no known cure for the condition. The term autistic is sometimes used to describe people with severe emotional problems that resemble autism. 

Many people associate autism only with children. However, the disorder hinders an individual's social and emotional development throughout life. 


Most individuals with autism display the following symptoms: 

Social detachment and unresponsiveness. Many autistic babies do not smile at their parents or reach out to be cuddled or picked up. Children with autism do not play with other children. They often appear to live in their own world, unaware of people and events around them. Many autistic individuals never seem to develop normal concern for the feelings of others. 

Abnormal language. Autistic people have serious problems in speaking and in understanding language. Many autistic children never speak. Others utter words or phrases that have no place in a discussion. They may repeat something they have heard on television or in conversation. Their voices may sound mechanical or robotlike. Autistic children have trouble learning the words "I" and "yes." They sometimes express the idea of "yes" by repeating the question they were asked. 

Insistence on sameness. People with autism are intolerant of changes in their physical surroundings or daily routines. An autistic child may have a tantrum if toys are not in their usual places. An older autistic person may engage in the same hobby or have a set topic of conversation, such as train schedules or road maps. 

Unusual movements. Many autistic children repeat the same motions over and over again. For example, they may twirl about, rock back and forth, wave their arms, and flick their fingers. Autistic youngsters may be hyperactive--that is, they may constantly move from one place to another without apparent purpose. 

Negativism. Autistic children are sometimes described as negativistic, meaning that they intentionally do not comply with the requests of their parents or teachers. But usually they are not negativistic. Often the request is too complicated, or it is expressed in language that is too advanced for them to understand. 

Mechanical fascination. Children with autism may seem more interested in physical objects than in people. Some become very attached to a certain object and carry it about at all times. Autistic youngsters may become obsessed by a particular activity, such as flushing a toilet or turning a light switch on and off. 

Learning disability. About 80 per cent of all autistic children and adults are have learning difficulties. They cannot understand or solve problems at the level of normal individuals their age. When autistic children are observed in a familiar situation, however, they may appear to be brighter than their intelligence test scores indicate. 

Special skills are demonstrated by a few autistic children. Some can memorize long lists of names or numbers, or tell the day of the week on which a date will fall in any future year. Other autistic youngsters can draw amazingly accurate pictures or street maps. But their developmental problems usually prevent them from making full use of their special skills. 


No one knows what causes autism. Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist who first identified autism in 1943, believed it to be an inborn biological disorder. Today, medical authorities know autism can result from certain disorders that affect areas of the brain which control emotional, social, and language development. Researchers studying the development and chemical functioning of the brain hope to discover the cause of these disorders. 


Autistic children are treated chiefly by special teaching methods. One method, called behaviour modification, uses rewards to help autistic children learn useful skills. Many children with autism need to go to school six days a week throughout the year to avoid losing skills that may have taken months to learn. 

There is no established medical treatment for autism. Some autistic individuals require medication to control their hyperactivity and other behavioural problems. With medication, some autistic children are able to participate more effectively in school. 

Autistic individuals vary widely in their response to treatment. Some can eventually learn normal school subjects and hold jobs as adults. Others participate in workshops for the handicapped. But many autistic people develop few skills and must remain in special schools or institutions for life.


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