What is Autism?

Cameron is an angelic four-year-old with tumbling black curls and gorgeous blue eyes. Because of his striking looks he attracts more than his fair share of attention from passers-by, but the majority of them come away from an encounter with Cameron with a sense of frustration. He refuses to make eye-contact, shies away from conversation, and seldom responds even to the requests of his mother.

His language skills are below par and he appears to lack the usual broad emotional range characteristic of his age. He avoids first-person pronouns in his speech: if asked does he want a cookie, Cameron will reply: “He wants a cookie”. He usually resists being hugged, even by his parents and grandparents. Cameron suffers from autism.

Autism is a relatively rare disorder. Figures vary, but the American Psychiatric Association estimate about two per 1,000 births. Gender differences in the incidence of autism are marked, and depend on the IQ of the individual. For those with very low IQs, the trend is towards a higher female population. Autistic children with average-to-high IQs are typically male. There is a varying range in IQ for suffers of this disorder: about half of identified autistic children have IQs in the severe mental retardation range (<50), around a quarter have IQs in the 50 to 70 range, with the remainder in the borderline to average range (average being 100 IQ points). Naturally, those displaying lower IQ scores are more likely to be delayed in communication skills and need intensive educational and emotional support during the course of their life. Despite these grim statistics, there are autistic children who grow up to be accomplished adults, a small percentage with university degrees and productive employment. There remain, however, difficulties in social interaction.

Autistic disorder is a worldwide phenomenon, and is independent of race or culture. However, the majority of children with autism will display the unmistakable signs of the disorder by an average age of 36 months. Autism is a complex and puzzling disorder and researchers have presented numerous theories over the years to explain it.

In later articles, we will be looking at the symptoms and theories of autism, and its close cousin, Asperger’s Disorder.

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