Autism, commonly referred to today as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is not a single disorder. Rather it is a range of complex disorders characterized by difficulties in communication and social interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive and stereotyped behavior patterns. It includes a number of conditions, including autism disorder, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). There are wide ranges in abilities in people affected by autism, but it does not appear to be degenerative. It affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and is four times more likely to affect boys than girls. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that 1 of 88 children will have a disorder on the autism spectrum.

Symptoms and Complications

The main symptom of autism is impaired social function. It may appear as early as infancy, when a baby with ASD may not respond to people or focus his attention on one item to the exclusion of everything else. In many cases, a child with an autism spectrum disorder may appear to develop normally, only to withdraw and refuse social engagement. Some of the earliest indicators of autism include:

* No eye contact or poor eye contact

* No babbling or pointing by age 1

* No response to name

* Loss of language or social skills

* No single words by 16 months or 2-word phrases by age 2

* No smiling or social engagement

* Excessively lines up toys or object

As children with autism get older, they may show other symptoms, signs and complications, such as:

* Impairment in the ability to make friends with peers

* Impairment in the ability to converse with others

* Impairment of social play or imaginative play

* Stereotyped, repetitive or unusual use of language

* Restricted interests that are abnormal in intensity and focus

* Preoccupation with specific objects or subjects

* Adherence to routine and ritual

Few children show all the symptoms of autism. Those who have lesser symptoms may be diagnosed with PDD-NOS or Asperger Syndrome, while those whose social and language skills suddenly deteriorate between the ages of 3 and 10 may be diagnosed with childhood disintegrative disorder.

Risk Factors and Causes

There is no specific biological marker for autism. Doctors rely on screening surveys and observation to make a diagnosis. However, studies have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain of people with ASD, while others have found abnormal levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Researchers theorize that ASD may result from defects in the genes that control brain growth and the ways that brain cells communicate with each other.


There is no cure for autism. In general, treatments and therapies are interventions designed to deal with specific symptoms, lessen family distress and increase quality of life and functional independence. They include educational and behavioral intervention, medications for specific symptoms and a variety of dietary and other alternative therapies, including the use of stem cells.

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