Autism affects one out of every 150 births, according to the Autism Society of America. While some experts point to a variety of factors, such as vaccines or environment, to explain these startling statistics, others attribute the recent influx of cases to changes in diagnostic criteria. Either way, this brain disorder is quickly becoming a health epidemic among our youth.

What Is Autism?

A complex disorder of the central nervous system, autism was officially defined by child psychologist Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943, but descriptions of the symptoms can be found in records dating back to the 18th century. Autism is identified by three core features:

  • Problems with social interactions;
  • Impaired verbal and nonverbal communication; and
  • A pattern of repetitive behavior with narrow, restricted interests.

An autistic child may seem different from birth and fail to meet certain milestones, such as cooing and waving by 12 months, yet other afflicted toddlers may progress normally and then suddenly regress anytime from 6 to 24 months. A diagnosis is often reached by age 3, and boys are four times more likely to suffer from autism, except in the case of Rett Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects primarily girls.

What Causes Autism?

A definitive cause of autism is yet to be discovered, although a number of experts have developed some theories:

  • Genetics. Several teams of researchers have been able to relate particular genetic defects to autism, either because of heredity or mutation. A recent study published by the Autism Consortium in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that chromosome 16, which is responsible for brain development, was either missing or duplicated in autism sufferers.
  • Environment. There is some belief that environmental factors and exposures may interact with genetic factors to cause an increased risk of autism in some families.
  • Vaccines. Some people believe autism is caused by vaccines--particularly the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR), as well as those containing thimerosal, a preservative that contains a very small amount of mercury.

Is There a Cure for Autism?

There is no cure for autism, although therapies and behavioral interventions designed to remedy specific symptoms can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that target the core symptoms of autism: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests. Most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

  • Educational/behavioral interventions. Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills. Counseling for the parents and siblings of children with autism often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with an autistic child.
  • Medications. Currently, there are no medications that directly improve the core signs of autism. But some medications may help control symptoms, such as stimulants, which can help with hyperactivity, and antipsychotic drugs, which may assist in controlling repetitive and aggressive behaviors.
  • Complementary therapies. Some parents choose to supplement educational and medical intervention with complementary therapies, such as art, music, vitamins, special diets, and sensory integration, which focuses on reducing a child's hypersensitivity to touch or sound. Before beginning any of these therapies, it's important to speak with your child's doctor.