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The Latest on Autism

Everywhere you turn, there's another report about autism. It can be so confusing -- and frightening.

What is autism anyway? Is autism a hidden epidemic, as we are sometimes led to believe? And is autism linked to childhood vaccines? The answers may surprise you.

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will provide free preventive care services, including checkups, vaccinations and screening tests, to children and teens. Learn more.

Health Insurance Center

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder, or PDD, a group of developmental disorders that involve delays in the development of many basic skills. The most notable delay with autism is the ability to socialize or form relationships with others. With autism, there's also a delay in the ability to communicate and to use imagination (including fantasy play).

The exact cause of autism is not known, but research has pointed to several possible factors, including genetics (heredity), metabolic and neurological factors, certain types of infections, and problems during pregnancy and at birth. A supposed connection between childhood vaccines and autism has been well discredited by several wide-ranging studies.

Although it affects four times as many boys as girls, autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, or educational levels do not affect a child's chance of having autism.

While most people with autism will always have some trouble relating to others, early diagnosis and treatment have helped more and more people with autism to live independently as adults.

What Are the Symptoms of Autism?

Some children show symptoms of autism from birth. Others seem to develop normally at first, only to slip suddenly into symptoms when they are 18 to 36 months old.

Children with autism can display a wide range of symptoms, which can vary in severity from mild to disabling. Autism symptoms typically appear before a child is 3 years old and last throughout a lifetime. General symptoms that may be present to some degree in a child with autism include:

  • Difficulty with verbal communication, including problems using and understanding language
  • Inability to participate in a conversation, even when the child has the ability to speak
  • Difficulty with non-verbal communication, such as gestures and facial expressions
  • Difficulty with social interaction, including relating to people and to his or her surroundings
  • Little or no eye contact, including sometimes the child acting as if he or she can’t see who or what is in front of the child, despite normal visual testing
  • Unresponsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests in normal range
  • Inability to make friends; prefers to play alone
  • Unusual ways of playing with toys and other objects, such as only lining them up a certain way
  • Difficulty adjusting to changes in routine or familiar surroundings, or an unreasonable insistence on following routines in detail
  • Repetitive body movements, or patterns of behavior, such as hand flapping, spinning, and head banging
  • Preoccupation with unusual objects or parts of objects

People with a form of autism called savantism have exceptional skills in specific areas such as music, art, and numbers. People with savantism are able to perform these skills without lessons or practice.

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