Autism is a rare, poorly understood condition in which children, usually boys, are disconnected from other beings to an extreme degree. It becomes evident if a child fails to acquire language by the second year of life. Although some perfectly normal children will talk late, autistic children characteristically have no receptivity to language and make only furtive eye contact. They always seem to be in their own world, won’t cuddle, and may engage in repetitive, self-stimulating behavior, such as spinning around.
Autistic children can have exceptional abilities in specific areas such as music. Similarly, Asperger syndrome is a specific form of autism in which a child is highly intelligent but has great difficult relating to others. Finally, some children display autistic features to various degrees without being fully autistic, in what we call “pervasive disorders.” Neurologists believe autism to be a malfunction of a specific part of the brain in genetically predisposed individuals. Researchers are investigating possible links between autism and in-utero exposure to various hazardous substances, but so far no one has established definitive connections. In the last decade, autism has been on the rise, but this may be a function of improved diagnoses, not increasing numbers, since cases of nonspecific mental retardation have declined in the same period.
Sadly, there is nothing you can do to prevent autism, and it’s unclear whether early diagnosis and treatment can change the outcome significantly. Treatment is palliative and relies on behavioral modification to help autistic children acquire some language.
A few years ago, a poorly conducted study raised the possibility of a link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Since then, a number of other studies have demonstrated conclusively that MMR vaccines do not trigger autism, but those studies have received less attention in the press. In addition, thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was previously used in vaccines, has also been incriminated, though never very scientifically. As a result, there are still, many parents who are still afraid to let doctors administer the MMR vaccines to their children, although the health benefits far outweigh these small and unconfirmed risks of autism.