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Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents usually notice signs during the first three years of their child’s life. These signs often develop gradually, though some children with autism reach their developmental milestones at a normal pace before worsening.

Autism is associated with a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors during pregnancy include certain infections, such as rubella, toxins including valproic acid, alcohol, cocaine, pesticides and air pollution, fetal growth restriction, and autoimmune diseases. Controversies surround other proposed environmental causes; for example, the vaccine hypothesis, which has been disproven.  Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering connections and organization of nerve cells and their synapses. How this occurs is not well understood. In the DSM-5, autism and less severe forms of the condition, including Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), have been combined into the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Some of the more common signs that may indicate a person has autism include:

Avoiding eye contact
Delayed speech and communication skills
Reliance on rules and routines
Being upset by relatively minor changes
Unexpected reactions to sounds, tastes, sights, touch and smells
Difficulty understanding other people’s emotions
Focusing on or becoming obsessed by a narrow range of interests or objects
Engaging in repetitive behavior such as flapping hands or rocking
Children not responding to their name by 12 months
Children not pointing at distant objects by 14 months

Symptoms Trouble with social interaction, impaired communication, restricted interests, repetitive behavior
Usual onset By age two or three
Duration Long-term
Causes Genetic and environmental factors
Diagnostic method Based on behavior and developmental history
Differential diagnosis Reactive attachment disorder, intellectual disability, schizophrenia
Treatment Behavioral therapy, speech therapy, psychotropic medication
Medication Antipsychotics, antidepressants, stimulants (associated symptoms)
Prognosis Frequently poor
Frequency 24.8 million (2015)

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