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What Is Autism?

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Updated March 03, 2009

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Definitions

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder which affects social and communication skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, motor and language skills. It is such a broad diagnosis that it can include people with high IQs and mental retardation -- and people with autism can be chatty or silent, affectionate or cold, methodical or disorganized. So, what exactly is an autism spectrum disorder? These articles are a good place to get the basics:

Who is at Greatest Risk of Autism?

As the media pick up more and more stories about autism, parents are becoming increasingly concerned about their young children. Might their idiosyncracies be signs of autism? Autism is now diagnosed in 1 out of 150 American children, and some people believe the numbers may be under-reported.

Who is at greatest risk? The bottom line is that boys are at much higher risk than girls, and that boys from families in which at least one other person is autistic are at higher risk of autism. If one identical twin is autistic, his twin is extremely likely to also be autistic (though the autism may present quite differently).

What Do Autistic People Have in Common?

While people with autism may be different from one other, they do have certain challenges and traits in common. Of course, it's always possible that you'll meet an autistic person who doesn't fit the mold. Overall, autism implies an impaired ability to read and manage social cues. Autistic people are unlikely to be the life of the party, though they may well be quite talented in such areas as engineering, technology and music. It's important to know that stereotypes of autistic people as "idiot savants" (such as the character presented by Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Rainman") may represent a few unusual individuals, but these are by no means typical of all people on the autism spectrum.
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