Autism is a complex disorder of brain development. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors, intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination, and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. The most obvious signs and symptoms of autism usually emerge between the ages of twelve and eighteen months. Some infants and toddlers can develop normally until the second year when autism begins to develop in a pattern called “regression.” Early intervention with proven behavioral therapies can improve outcomes.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified around one in sixty-eight American children as on the autism spectrum. This is an increase in prevalence over the last 40 years. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common in boys than in girls. There has been no explanation established for the continuing increase in autism, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered.
There is no one cause of autism or type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified several rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. The presence of a genetic predisposition to autism can further increase a child’s risk. The clearest evidence of these environmental risk factors involves events before and during birth. They can include advanced parental age at the time of conception, maternal illness during pregnancy, premature birth, very low birth weight, and other certain difficulties during birth. These are mostly related to periods of oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain. In recent years, a growing body of research has suggested that autism risk is less among those children whose mothers took prenatal vitamins containing folic acid in the months leading up to and after conception.
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