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Autism is a brain disorder characterized by social problems, language trouble, and strange, repetitive behaviors -- although there's a wide variation among cases. Many children with autism exhibit baffling behaviors, such as constantly flapping their hands or walking on their toes. They might insist on highly organized or rigid activities, maybe eating only beige foods or constantly carrying around some object.
Researchers aren't sure just what causes the brain's wiring to go awry, studies suggest that autism's roots lie in a person's genes. In a recent study, Karin Nelson, MD, a child neurologist with the National Institutes of Health, and her colleagues compared blood drawn from newborns later diagnosed with autism with the blood of typical infants. The blood of the autistic babies contained vasoactive intestinal peptide, a protein molecule that affects brain development. Researchers are also looking into other possible genetic markers for autism
Although autism is usually diagnosed in toddlerhood -- when a lag in language or an utter disinterest in others becomes strikingly apparent -- about 75 percent of parents of children with autism report feeling worried during the child's first year of life, says Fred Volkmar, MD, professor of psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at Yale.
One of the earliest and clearest signs of autism is the lack of joint attention -- the mutual understanding that occurs when a baby communicates by catching your eye, then gazing or pointing at what she wants to show you. These gestures usually form the foundation of language, emerging by about 10 to 12 months of age
Thanks to greater awareness among parents and doctors, autism is being recognized sooner, which means therapies can be started earlier, increasing these kids' chances for a rich life. Almost 30 percent of kids who get intervention by age 2 or 3 make significant gains in speech and IQ and may even attend a regular classroom.
To assess autism, a psychologist, neurologist, or developmental pediatrician will observe the child and interview the patients. Treatment typically involves at least one other specialist: a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or behavioral therapist (who teaches skills by breaking things down into small steps and reinforcing proper behavior with a reward, such as a video or playtime) -- or maybe all three.