What is Autism?
Autism is a brain disorder that typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others, and respond appropriately to the environment. Some people with autism are relatively high-functioning, with speech and intelligence intact. Others are mentally retarded, mute, or have serious language delays. For some, autism makes them seem closed off and shut down; others seem locked into repetitive behaviors and rigid patterns of thinking. Although people with autism do not have exactly the same symptoms and deficits, they tend to share certain social, communication, motor, and sensory problems that affect their behavior in predictable ways.
What Causes The Disease?
Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in autistic versus non-autistic children. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that autistic children may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single "trigger" that causes autism to develop. Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism affects 1 to 2 in 1,000 Americans. Studies done in Europe and Asia since 1985 have found that as many as 2 to 6 of every 1,000 children have an Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which is a broad array of mental problems that include autism. Many people believe that the incidence of autism is rising. A California study published this fall found that the rise in autism over the last decade was real and has little to do with better diagnosis and awareness.
In The Movies
Many books and films have dealt with the issue of autism. The most famous is "Rain Man," the 1988 film that starred Dustin Hoffman as the autistic brother of Tom Cruise. Cruise must come to terms with the fact that his brother is autistic.
When Was Autism "Discovered"?
Leo Kanner published his first paper identifying autistic children in 1943. Before then, such children would be classified as emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded. Kanner said that these children often demonstrated capabilities that showed that they were not merely slow learners, yet they didn't fit the patterns of emotionally disturbed children. "Autism" literally means "escape from reality." The name was used because Kanner suspected that these children were trying to escape from reality.
Among those who are thought to have exhibited traits related to autism or Asperger's Syndrome (a milder version of the disease) are inventor Thomas Edison (left), novelist Jane Austen, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Some researchers believe that some autism may be related to the use of the certain vaccines on children. These vaccines contained thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. Some believe that the vaccine exposed infants to high doses of mercury, which led to autism. The theory is extremely controversial, and many researchers say it is not backed by scientific evidence.
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