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What is Autism? Print E-mail
Written by Gary Presant, MD   
Monday, 05 October 2009
Autism is a condition that affects development of the brain. Autism severely affects a person's social, mental, emotional, and communications skills.
What is going on in the body?

Autism is the most severe form of the pervasive developmental disorders, which affect a person's ability to interact with others. The hallmark signs of autism are extreme difficulty in responding to social interactions and communicating with others. Autism is most often noticed before the age of 3. It occurs four times more often in boys than in girls. It seems to appear equally among all parts of society. It affects about 5 out of 10,000 people.

Some people who have autism may also have other disorders that affect the brain. These include:
- epilepsy
- Down syndrome
- fragile X syndrome
- Turner syndrome

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

The causes of autism are not well known. Experts suspect a genetic factor. What is known is that none of the following can cause autism.
- bad parenting
- mental illness
- a child's naughty behavior

Psychological factors have also not been found to contribute to autism.

Some cases of autism have been associated with trauma, disease, or structural abnormalities before or during birth. These include:
- encephalitis or other serious infections affecting the brain as an infant
- lack of oxygen during birth
- the mother having rubella, also called German measles, while she was pregnant
- untreated phenylketonuria, a problem in the body's ability to handle certain chemicals named phenylketones

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment for autism first focuses on education. This should be tailored to each person's specific needs and symptoms. Some of the treatments include:
- audiovisual therapies, which provide structured cues
- behavioral therapy to help the person deal with his or her environment
- dietary review
- "inclusion programs" to help the person adapt to the outside world as much as possible
- medicines, including antipsychotic medicines
- music therapy
- physical therapy
- speech therapy
- providing a structured environment for the person

Treatment may also include teaching the person how to handle new situations. This can include asking for help, directions, and other needs. An individual with autism often needs guidance in getting jobs and handling the daily work routine.

The families and friends of people with autism need support as well.
The more support they have, the better the adjustment to living with a person with autism. Sometimes the person may need to go to a group home if the family is not able to function and treat the person with autism.
What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects depend on the treatments used. Behavioral therapy can cause frustration for the person and the family going through it. Medicines may cause stomach upset, rash, irritability, depression, and allergic reactions.
What happens after treatment for the condition?

Treatment for autism will usually last a lifetime. A person with a mild form of autism may need to monitor himself or herself for new or worsening symptoms. A person with a more severe form of autism may need assistance with treatment and therapy programs.

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