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Links to our Autism Support Group & Information

Understanding the Problem

Isolated in worlds of their own, people with autism appear indifferent and remote and are unable to form emotional bonds with others. Although people with this baffling brain disorder can display a wide range of symptoms and disability, many are incapable of understanding other people's thoughts, feelings, and needs. Often, language and intelligence fail to develop fully, making communication and social relationships difficult. Many people with autism engage in repetitive activities, like rocking or banging their heads, or rigidly following familiar patterns in their everyday routines. Some are painfully sensitive to sound, touch, sight, or smell.

Children with autism do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems become more noticeable as the child slips farther behind other children the same age. Other children start off well enough. But between 18 and 36 months old, they suddenly reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had already acquired.

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver you may know the frustration of trying to communicate and connect with children or adults who have autism. You may feel ignored as they engage in endlessly repetitive behaviors. You may despair at the bizarre ways they express their inner needs. And you may feel sorrow that your hopes and dreams for them may never materialize.

But there is help-and hope. Gone are the days when people with autism were isolated, typically sent away to institutions. Today, many youngsters can be helped to attend school with other children. Methods are available to help improve their social, language, and academic skills. Even though more than 60 percent of adults with autism continue to need care throughout their lives, some programs are beginning to demonstrate that with appropriate support, many people with autism can be trained to do meaningful work and participate in the life of the community.

Autism is found in every country and region of the world, and in families of all racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Emerging in childhood, it affects about 1 or 2 people in every thousand and is three to four times more common in boys than girls. Girls with the disorder, however, tend to have more severe symptoms and lower intelligence. In addition to loss of personal potential, the cost of health and educational services to those affected exceeds $3 billion each year. So, at some level, autism affects us all.

Research on autism and related disorders is also sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

NIMH scientists are dedicated to understanding the workings and interrelationships of the various regions of the brain, and to developing preventive measures and new treatments for disorders like autism that handicap people in school, work, and social relationships.

Up-to-date information on autism and the role of NIMH in identifying underlying causes and effective treatments are included in this pamphlet. Also described are symptoms and diagnostic procedures, treatment options, strategies for coping, and sources of information and support.

The individuals referred to in this article are not real, but their stories are based on interviews with parents who have children with autism.


Paul has always been obsessed with order. As a child, he lined up blocks, straightened chairs, kept his toothbrush in the exact same spot on the sink, and threw a tantrum when anything was moved. Paul could also become aggressive. Sometimes, when upset or anxious, he would suddenly explode, throwing a nearby object or smashing a window. When overwhelmed by noise and confusion, he bit himself or picked at his nails until they bled. At school, where his schedule and environment could be carefully structured, his behavior was more normal. But at home, amid the unpredictable, noisy hubbub of a large family, he was often out of control. His behavior made it harder and harder for his parents to care for him at home and also meet their other children's needs. At that time-more than 10 years ago-much less was known about the disorder and few therapeutic options were available. So, at age 9, his parents placed him in a residential program where he could receive 24-hour supervision and care.


As an infant, Alan was playful and affectionate. At 6 months old, he could sit up and crawl. He began to walk and say words at 10 months and could count by 13 months. One day, in his 18th month, his mother found him sitting alone in the kitchen, repeatedly spinning the wheels of her vacuum cleaner with such persistence and concentration, he didn't respond when she called. From that day on, she recalls, "It was as if someone had pulled a shade over him." He stopped talking and relating to others. He often tore around the house like a demon. He became fixated on electric lights, running around the house turning them on and off. When made to stop, he threw a tantrum, kicking and biting anyone within reach.


From the day she was born, Janie seemed different from other infants. At an age when most infants enjoy interacting with people and exploring their environment, Janie sat motionless in her crib and didn't respond to rattles or other toys. She didn't seem to develop in the normal sequence, either. She stood up before she crawled, and when she began to walk, it was on her toes. By 30 months old, she still wasn't talking. Instead, she grabbed things or screamed to get what she wanted. She also seemed to have immense powers of concentration, sitting for hours looking at a toy in her hand. When Janie was brought to a special clinic for evaluation, she spent an entire testing session pulling tufts of wool from the psychologist's sweater.


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