Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and although it is defined by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults with autism can exhibit any combination of these behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act completely different from one another and have varying capabilities. You may hear different terms used to describe children within this spectrum, such as autisticlike, autistic tendencies, autism spectrum, high-functioning or low-functioning autism, more-abled or less-abled, but more important than the term used to describe autism is understanding that whatever the diagnosis, children with autism can learn and function normally and show improvement with appropriate treatment and education. Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals who are mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. They may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their communication is often described as talking at others instead of to them (e.g., monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments). People with autism also process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Persons with autism may also exhibit some of the following traits: • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change • Difficulty in expressing needs; using gestures or pointing instead of words • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language • Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason; showing distress for reasons not apparent to others • Preference to being alone; aloof manner • Tantrums • Difficulty in mixing with others • Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled • Little or no eye contact • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods • Sustained odd play • Spinning objects • Obsessive attachment to objects • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain • No real fears of danger • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity • Uneven gross/fine motor skills • Non-responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests are in normal range For most of us, the integration of our senses helps us to understand what we are experiencing. For example, our sense of touch, smell and taste work together in the experience of eating a ripe peach: the feel of the peach's skin, its sweet smell, and the juices running down your face. For children with autism, sensory integration problems are common, which may throw their senses off (they may be over- or under-active). The fuzz on the peach may actually be experienced as painful, and the smell may make the child gag. Some children with autism are particularly sensitive to sound, finding even the most ordinary daily noises painful. Many professionals feel that some of the typical behaviors of autism, like the ones listed above, are actually a result of sensory integration difficulties.

There are also many myths and misconceptions about autism. Contrary to popular belief, many children with autism do make eye contact; it just may be less often or different from a neurotypical child. Many children with autism can develop good functional language and others can develop some type of communication skills, such as sign language or use of pictures. Children do not "outgrow" autism, but symptoms may lessen as the child develops and receives treatment. One of the most devastating myths about children with autism is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation is processed differently in some children, they can and do give affection. However, it may require patience on the parents' part to accept and give love in the child's terms.

What is Autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development.”

What causes autism?
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No one knows exactly why but the brain develops differently in people with autism. Finding the cause (or causes) of autism is one of the most challenging areas of medical science. The absence of a clear understanding about what causes autism makes finding effective therapies very difficult. It is now widely accepted by scientists that a predisposition to autism is inherited. It is not clear why a genetic predisposition affects some family members and not others. Autism is no longer attributed, as it once was, to lack of affection in the child's mother. Levels of autism appear to be rising but that may be the result of improved detection, identification and diagnosis. There are currently no biological tests to confirm a diagnosis of autism. Identification of the condition is at present based solely on observed behaviours. Research is also taking place to establish the part played, if any, by environmental factors either prenatally or after a child is born. Autism spectrum disorders are some of the most common developmental disorders, with up to 1 in 100 school children affected, compared to: 1 in 500 affected by cerebral palsy 1 in 3,000 affected by cystic fibrosis 1 in 4,000 affected by juvenile diabetes 6,000 children received a diagnosis of autism in England and Wales in 2005, compared to: 1,300 diagnoses of childhood cancer including around 360 of childhood leukaemia.

How common is autism?
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While many people with autism and their families will cope well with the additional challenges autism brings, the emotional impact of autism is often difficult and sometimes devastating for people with autism and the families of those affected. In the case of high-functioning people with autism, levels of mental health problems and depression are high as individuals struggle to cope in everyday society. Whilst many people argue that people with autism should be regarded simply as different rather than 'disordered', there is no doubt of the very real distress that autism can cause.

For the individual with autism, the world can be a confusing and lonely place, where everyone except them understands the rules of appropriate behavior. People with low functioning autism may have no speech and complex special needs and may need full-time care. Research by the National Autistic Society shows: 4 out of 10 children have no friends 4 out of 10 children are bullied at school A quarter of children with autism are excluded from school Only 6% of people with autism are able to achieve full-time employment For the family of an autistic child life is often stressful. Parents and siblings usually have to cope with unyielding challenging behavior and possibly sleep deprivation, as many children with autism do not sleep for long periods of time. Because children and adults with autism find it difficult to manage in social situations, many families become isolated. Added to this, is the difficult and lengthy processes to obtain from local authorities the special education to which children with autism are entitled. Many parents with autistic children believe that they will be primary career for life and are often very concerned about what will happen to their child when they die. The stresses to family life can lead to relationship breakdowns, divorce and, in extreme circumstances, suicide. Just under half of parents of children with autism experience mental distress. The economic impact of autism is beginning to be realized

What is Asperger's Syndrome?

What distinguishes Asperger's Syndrome from autism is the severity of the symptoms and the absence of language delays. Children with Asperger's may be only mildly affected and frequently have good language and cognitive skills. To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger's may seem just like a normal child behaving differently. They may be socially awkward, not understanding of conventional social rules, or show a lack of empathy. They may make limited eye contact, seem to be unengaged in a conversation, and not understand the use of gestures. One of the major differences between Asperger's Syndrome and autism is that, by definition, there is no speech delay in Asperger's. In fact, children with Asperger's frequently have good language skills; they simply use language in different ways. Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection, or have a rhythmic nature or it may be formal, but too loud or high pitched. Children with Asperger's may not understand the subtleties of language, such as irony and humor, or they may not recognize the give-and-take nature of a conversation. Another distinction between Asperger's Syndrome and autism concerns cognitive ability. While some individuals with autism experience mental retardation, by definition a person with Asperger's cannot possess a "clinically significant" cognitive delay, and most possess average to above-average intelligence.

Why is early intervention so important?

Early intervention is defined as services delivered to children from birth to age 3, and research shows that it has a dramatic impact on reducing the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. Studies in early childhood development have shown that the youngest brains are the most flexible. In autism, we see that intensive early intervention yields a tremendous amount of progress in children by the time they enter kindergarten, often reducing the need for intensive supports.

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