What is autism?

Autism is a disorder of child development characterized by three main features:
  • poor social interaction
  • limited ability to communicate
  • limited repertoire of activities and interests
Autism is not a single discrete condition. It falls within a spectrum of problems grouped under the category of “pervasive developmental disorders.” Pervasive developmental disorders are characterized by delays in the development of socialization and communication skills. [1] [NIDNS, 2006]

Common signs of autism are:
  • undeveloped or poorly developed verbal and nonverbal communication skills
  • abnormal speech patterns
  • impaired ability to sustain a conversation
  • abnormal social play
  • lack of empathy towards others
  • inability to make friends
  • quirky, repetitive body movements
  • marked need for sameness
  • very narrow interests
  • preoccupation with parts of the body
  • minimal eye contact
There is a spectrum of severity of these symptoms that range from the most dramatic and stereotypic form of autism where children will have limited or no speech, prefer to engage in repetitive motor or sensory behaviors and do not relate much to other people except in times of need, through to the other end of the spectrum where individuals may be quite articulate with a high IQ and appear to function relatively well with features that may not be readily detectable, this condition is often called Asperger syndrome. In the mid-range of the spectrum are those individuals with a variety of diagnostic symptoms with varying severity. These children are diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder [of Childhood] – Not Otherwise Specified or simply PDD(NOS) [2] According to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders has increased during the past two decades from 4-5 children per 10,000 in the 1980’s to 30-60 children per 10,000 in the 1990’s. However, it is unclear whether the incidence of autism is actually increasing or whether the increase is a result of increased awareness, changes in the diagnostic criteria, and improvements in detecting the set of conditions on the spectrum. At present no studies have been able to conclusively determine if the incidence of autism and other conditions on the autism spectrum have actually increased in the U.S. or worldwide. [3]