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What is it?
Autism is a disability that affects the normal development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communication. The first signs of autism usually appear as developmental delays before the age of 3. Autism is described as a 'spectrum' disorder. This means that the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations and can range from mild to severe. Autism has no outward phycial signs.

How is it caused?
The cause of autism is unknown. It is generally accepted that autism is caused by abnormalities in brain development.

Genetic influences
Autism runs in families so there is a genetic component to this condition. If there is one child in a family with autism there is an increased risk of having another autistic child. Studies of twins have shown that if one identical twin has autism the other is much more likely to be affected than is the case with fraternal twins. Also, mild impairment of social or language skills is more common in first-degree relatives of children with autism.

Brain abnormalities
Autism is also thought to be related to brain development throughout pregnancy and after birth. Different studies have shown abnormal activity or structural defects in these areas of the brain in some individuals with autism but much more research is required to identify the cause of autism. Abnormal levels of some neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain have been identified in some people with autism, and this may play a part in distorting messages to and from the brain.

Non-genetic causes
There may be a history of complications during the prenatal, peri-natal or post-natal periods. This may indicate an abnormal foetus rather than being the cause of the abnormality. There have been claims that autism may be caused by the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Recent research does not support an association between the vaccine and the risk of autism.

Early signs and Characteristics
Parents are usually the first to notice symptoms in the first year or two of life.

Not smiling by 6 months
Not babbling by 12 months
Not gesturing such as waving
Any loss of language/social skills
No single words by 16 months


How is Autism diagnosed?
In most cases a parent will notice a difference in the childs language, behaviour or social development. The family GP or Public Health Nurse can then refer the child to a paediatrician who can assess the childs developmental delay.