Understanding Autism

With a rise in diagnosed cases and a sea of conflicting information, autism is a condition that leaves many parents terrified. Yet affected families have every reason to be hopeful about the future.

When he was a toddler, Donald didn't seem to care whether his parents came or went. Before turning 2, he'd already memorized Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd...") and could recite the catechism from memory, but never paid attention to a fully costumed Santa Claus during the winter holidays. He soon became obsessed with watching spinning objects and would have explosive temper tantrums if he was interrupted. Worried, Donald's father sent a 33-page typed letter recounting these and other unusual behaviors to a young psychiatrist named Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore.

The year was 1938, and Donald would later become the first American child ever diagnosed with autism. For decades afterward, it was believed that the condition was rare. Times have certainly changed. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, or ASDs, and it's four to five times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.


The almost fivefold jump in schoolchildren diagnosed with autism between 1993 and 2003 has prompted some authorities and politicians to proclaim that we're in the midst of an "autism epidemic." Bombarded with news about autism (as I write this, Google reports that 4,470 new stories mentioned the condition in the past 24 hours), parents of babies and toddlers are understandably alarmed and confused. I've been there myself. As a pediatrician and first-time father, I followed my son Jake's growth and development with anticipation, and eagerly awaited his first smile and steps. But when he was almost 2, back in 2003, he was saying only a few words. According to a checklist known as the Denver Scale that was used at the time, he should have known more words. Naturally, my wife and I were very worried.

One reason that autism frightens mothers and fathers so deeply is because its cause is unclear. Parents also fear that a diagnosis of autism virtually guarantees a difficult life -- not only for their child, but for their entire family. But researchers are more encouraged than ever about early intervention, which can be enormously beneficial. "We can do so much to help children manage their challenges," explains Patricia Wright, Ph.D., M.P.H., national director of autism services for Easter Seals, which provides support for people with disabilities. "Wherever your child is now, he or she can make significant progress over time."

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