Autism is a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. These signs all begin before a child is three years old. The autism spectrum disorders (ASD) also include the related conditions Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS, which have fewer signs and symptoms.

Autism has a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism are complex and it is unclear whether ASD is explained more by multigene interactions or by rare mutations. In rare cases, autism is strongly associated with agents that cause birth defects. Controversies surround other proposed environmental causes, such as heavy metals, pesticides or childhood vaccines; the vaccine hypotheses are biologically implausible and lack convincing scientific evidence. The prevalence of ASD is about 6 per 1,000 people, with about four times as many males as females. The number of people known to have autism has increased dramatically since the 1980s, partly due to changes in diagnostic practice; the question of whether actual prevalence has increased is unresolved.

Autism affects many parts of the brain; how this occurs is not understood. Parents usually notice signs in the first two years of their child's life. Although early behavioral or cognitive intervention can help children gain self-care, social, and communication skills, there is no known cure. Not many children with autism live independently after reaching adulthood, though some become successful, and an autistic culture has developed, with some seeking a cure and others believing autism should be tolerated as a difference and not treated as a disorder.

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Author's Bio: 

This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Autism. The Official Guide to Autism is Nicole Beurkens. Nicole Beurkens, founder and director of the Horizons Developmental Remediation Center, is an autism specialist with a master’s degree in special education and is currently a candidate for a PhD in clinical psychology. She holds a professional teaching certificate with endorsements in autism and learning disabilities, and maintains the prestigious title of Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) ® Program Certified Consultant. With a background in classroom teaching, curriculum/program development, and family-based therapy, Nicole is a highly sought-after consultant and speaker for families and school professionals throughout the United States and abroad.

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