Most infants and young children
are very social creatures who need and want contact with others
to thrive and grow. They smile, cuddle, laugh, and respond eagerly
to games like "peek-a-boo" or hide-and-seek. Occasionally,
however, a child does not interact in this expected manner. Instead,
the child seems to exist in his or her own world, a place characterized
by repetitive routines, odd and peculiar behaviors, problems in
communication, and a total lack of social awareness or interest
in others. These are characteristics of a developmental disorder
Autism is usually identified by
the time a child is 30 months old and always by three years of
age. It is often discovered when parents become concerned that
their child may be deaf, is not yet talking, resists cuddling,
and avoids interaction with others.
A preschool age child with "classic"
autism is generally withdrawn, aloof, and fails to respond to
other people. Many of these children will not even make eye contact.
They may also engage in odd or ritualistic behaviors like rocking,
hand waving, or an obsessive need to maintain order.
Many children with autism do not
speak at all. Those who do may speak in rhyme, have echolalia
(repeating a person's words like an echo), refer to themselves
as a "he" or "she," or use peculiar language.
The severity of autism varies widely,
from mild to severe. Some children are very bright and do well
in school, although they have problems with school adjustment.
They may be able to live independently when they grow up. Other
children with autism function at a much
lower level. Mental retardation is commonly associated with autism.
Occasionally, a child with autism may display an extraordinary
talent in art, music, or another specific area.
The cause of autism remains unknown,
although current theories indicate a problem with the function
or structure of the central nervous system. What we do know, however,
is that parents do not cause autism.
Children with autism need comprehensive
evaluation and specialized behavioral and educational programs.
Some children with autism may also benefit from treatment with
medication. Child and adolescent psychiatrists are trained to
diagnose autism, and to help families design and implement an
appropriate treatment plan.
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