Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates, and
severely limits their ability to relate to others in a meaningful way, develop friendships or understand other people's feelings.
Autism is often referred to as a spectrum disorder because of the variation in type and severity of problems a child may experience. Those most able to function normally within the autistic spectrum are said to have Asperger's syndrome.
What are the problems?
People with autism have a triad of impairments in social interaction, social communication (verbal and non-verbal - they don't understand the meaning of gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice) - and imagination.
In general there may be:
a failure to develop normal speech
- an absence of normal facial expression and body ********
- a lack of eye contact
- a tendency to spend time alone
- a lack of imaginative play
- repetitive behaviour
- obsession with particular ******s or routines.
These behavioural difficulties can cause a great deal of stress for members of the family.
As many as 75% of people with autism have accompanying learning disabilities and 15% to 30% have seizures.
Some autistic children have an exceptional skill, such as an aptitude for drawing, mathematics, or playing a musical instrument.
Who does autism affect?
Autism affects about five in 10,000 people with a male to female ratio of 4:1. Autistic spectrum disorders are estimated to touch the lives of more than 500,000 families throughout the UK.
Although autism can run in families, the precise cause of autism remains unknown so it's not possible to prevent it. Research shows that genetic factors are important. Autism is also associated with a variety of conditions that affect brain development before, during, or soon after birth. These conditions may trigger autism in a person who's genetically susceptible.
There's no cure for autism. Maximising a child's potential is the goal of treatment. This can be achieved through appropriate specialist education, speech and ******** therapy, as well as behavioural therapy. Medication is sometimes recommended when it's felt to be of benefit to the child.
A strong genetic component in autism is shown by the high number of identical twins both having the condition compared to non-identical twins, and a risk among brothers and sisters of affected people that is 75 times greater than for the general population. Researchers are examining a number of chromosome sites that could be implicated, especially on chromosomes 7 and 15.
It's likely that autism occurs with the interaction of a small number of specific genes - and possibly with some external event or factor. These genes have yet to be pinned down but may include the HOXA1 gene, which is active in the brain stem only during development, when the first neurons are forming in the embryo.
There's no simple screening test to identify those people carrying genes that might increase susceptibility to autism, and no prenatal screening available.