The usage of the term "Autism" has changed considerably over time and it currently refers to a range of disorders rather than one specific problem. As such the more appropriate term is "Autistic Spectrum Disorder", since no two cases are exactly the same. All cases of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are characterized by impairment in social interaction, communication and imaginative thought.
Impairment in social interaction may manifest itself as a lack of understanding of others feelings or inability to read others' facial expressions or body language. The patient may also appear aloof or withdrawn or act inappropriately in social situations.
Communication problems may result in a literal interpretation of language and unawareness of the symbolic significance of language.
Impaired imagination means that the patient has great difficulty imagining any situation that has not already been experienced. Changes and new situations are extremely frightening and disorienting. This explains why the autistic person may engage in repetitive or ritualistic behaviors. The autistic person gains comfort from the familiarity of these rituals.
Within the spectrum there are many combinations and degrees of impairment in each of these areas. For instance High Functioning Autism meets all the criteria of autism described above but the degree of impairment may not be so severe. In Asperger syndrome the social impairment may be severe but communication ability may not be as seriously impaired. Often Aspergers sufferers fall within the normal intelligence range. Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) may be diagnosed where the characteristics of autism or Aspergers exist but the level of impairment is not sufficient to justify either of these diagnoses.
Autistic Spectrum disorder occurs in all social, racial and ethnic backgrounds but is more common among boys than girls and is usually diagnosed within the first three years of life. The child will display evidence of developmental delays. Language skills may be delayed or altogether absent and the child may react to people in abnormal ways. Most children will also have some impairment in their senses. Some senses may be over sensitive while others may be less sensitive than normal. This may cause the autistic person to go through life in a blur of sensory information that they have difficulty comprehending. In addition to sensory problems children diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder may also suffer some degree of mental retardation and around one in four may experience seizures.
Unfortunately there is no cure for autism. Treatment focuses on improving communication skills and social interaction. Another aspect of treatment is dealing with associated behavioral problems. Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors may be prescribed to treat anxiety and depression while anti-psychotic medication may be used to control aggression and other severe behavioral issues. Anticonvulsants may be used where seizures are experienced. Dietary changes may be implemented in some cases. There is anecdotal evidence that food allergies may cause some of the symptoms of autism and some success has been reported with Casein and Gluten free diets as well as vitamin B6 supplements. Given the wide spectrum that ASD may cover it is absolutely vital that treatment be tailored to the individual's needs.
The cause of autism is not known with certainty. Some hypotheses have suggested a connection between thimerosal a mercury based preservative used in the Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccine. However, studies have failed to establish that such a connection exists. Recent advances in brain imaging technology have shown that the brains of autistic persons have significant physical differences. Some areas may be more developed than in a person without autism. This could explain why some autistic people demonstrate extraordinary skills in certain specific areas. For instance some may have exceptional mathematical ability or photographic memories. However, other areas of their brains may be physically smaller or less developed.
Based on the current level of knowledge it is clear that there is much still to be discovered about autism and its causes. However, most experts agree that a patient is best served with early support and treatment customized to his personal needs.