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    Parenting a Child With Autism

    If your child -- or the child of a close friend or relative -- has just received a diagnosis of autism, you are probably feeling baffled and overwhelmed. It is never easy to learn that someone you love has a serious health or developmental condition. Learning all you can about the disorder -- and where to get help -- will ease your fear and confusion. It can also provide the tools you need to find the support that children with autism -- and you -- really need.

    How to Identify Children With Autism

    Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in early childhood. Autism is the most common condition in a related constellation of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders, also called ASDs. Other autism spectrum disorders include Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD. Autism and other autism spectrum disorders can be difficult to diagnose, because the symptoms and degree of impairment -- ranging from mild to severe -- are different for every child.

    Some features of autism include:

    • Social withdrawal
    • Verbal or nonverbal communication problems
    • Rigid and repetitive behavior

    In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.

    Signs and Symptoms in Children With Autism

    Autism usually appears before a child is 3 years old. Some signs of autism may be evident as early as 10 to 12 months, and certainly by 18 months.

    Varying widely, signs and symptoms in children with autism typically include:

    • Impaired communication skills
    • Difficulty making eye contact
    • Repetitive behaviors and activities such as arm flapping, head banging, or twirling an object over and over
    • Rigid behavior and difficulty with change and transitions
    • Narrow range of interests and activities

    What Causes Autism?

    Experts do not know exactly what causes autism. In the past, people blamed parenting practices, which added a burden of guilt and shame on parents already struggling to cope with a disabled child. Today, most scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause autism.

    Recent research confirms multiple genetic abnormalities that can predisposition someone to autism. Several genes have been implicated. In addition, there may be metabolic or biochemical factors that can cause autism spectrum disorders. Other research is looking at environmental triggers, including exposure to certain viruses. But a number of comprehensive studies have totally disproved the purported link between vaccines and ASD.

    Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism in the U.S. and around the world. Experts do not know if this is because the disorder is actually on the rise, or if doctors are simply diagnosing it more effectively. We should learn more answers to questions like these over the next few years. That's because many researchers are currently looking into autism's origins, prevalence, and treatment.

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