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    Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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    Understanding Autism -- the Basics

    What Is Autism? continued...

    Autism is said to be increasing; however, it is not entirely clear whether the increase is related to changes in how it is diagnosed or whether it is a true increase in the incidence of the disease.

    Autism is just one syndrome that now falls under the heading of autism spectrum disorders.  Previous disorders that are now classified under the umbrella diagnosis of  ASD or a social communication disorder include:

    • Autistic disorder. This is what most people think of when they hear the word "autism." It refers to problems with social interactions, communication, and imaginative play in children younger than 3 years.
    • Asperger's syndrome. These children don't have a problem with language -- in fact, they tend to score in the average or above-average range on intelligence tests. But they have the same social problems and limited scope of interests as children with autistic disorder.
    • Pervasive developmental disorder or PDD -- also known as atypical autism. This is a kind of catch-all category for children who have some autistic behaviors but who don't fit into other categories.
    • Childhood disintegrative disorder. These children develop normally for at least two years and then lose some or most of their communication and social skills. This is an extremely rare disorder and its existence as a separate condition is a matter of debate among many mental health professionals.

     

     

    What Causes Autism?

    Because autism runs in families, most researchers think that certain combinations of genes may predispose a child to autism. But there are risk factors that increase the chance of having a child with autism.

    Advanced age of the mother or the father increases the chance of an autistic child.

    When a pregnant woman is exposed to certain drugs or chemicals, her child is more likely to be autistic. These risk factors include the use of alcohol, maternal metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, and the use of antiseizure drugs during pregnancy. In some cases, autism has been linked to untreated phenylketonuria (called PKU, an inborn metabolic disorder caused by the absence of an enzyme) and rubella (German measles).

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