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Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, is a complex spectrum of cognitive disorders that usually manifests in early childhood, affecting language, communication and socialization. Effects include:

  • Impaired social interaction and communication. People with autism often do not understand and thus miss pertinent social cues, body language and facial expressions. For example, they can often have trouble with sarcasm and realising someone is being sarcastic.
  • Restricted and repetitive behavior.
  • Emotional intelligence tends to be compromised, which can appear as lack of empathy with others, making social situations awkward and/or difficult.
  • Facial recognition is also severely impaired, although not to the point of being face-blind, as autistic people use the wrong part of the brain to process faces (what part they do use is currently the subject of debate), and, unlike people without autism, they process faces as individual pieces and at the same speed as everything else.

Autism is considered to be a subset disorder under the heading of Pervasive Developmental Disorders which along with Autism includes Asperger's Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Under the DSM-5 all previously distinct autistic disorders are now classified and diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Rett Syndrome and CDD (which are very different, and in the case of the former scientists have determined it is an X chromosome defect) have been reclassified as distinct disorders.

Autism as a specific disorder is part of the Autism spectrum of disorders which also includes Asperger's syndrome. There is no clear point where someone is clearly autistic, and there is no clinical diagnostic test for autism. Each case is diagnosed by qualitative observation by a team of caregivers and professionals.

Since 1944, when Austrian psychologist Hans Asperger published his first paper about what he called "autistic psychopathy", the psychiatric community has become increasingly aware that high-functioning people with autism-like symptoms are not "psychopaths", as they were once, and are sometimes still, labeled. We also now know that autism is a spectrum of traits and disorders with varying levels of severity. Depending on the amount of woo involved, the fact that people who present unusual but not dysfunctional behavior can be diagnosed with autism (and suffer the consequences)[1] can be used as rational criticism of modern clinical psychology, or as fodder for crank theories about autism being a higher level of evolution.

Causes and controversy[edit]

There has been a marked increase in the number of diagnosed cases of autism in recent years, but the true incidence and possible cause has been hotly debated. Some think the rise in reported cases may be simply due to more awareness of the syndrome, coupled perhaps with defining it more broadly to include the whole autistic spectrum. There is some evidence that more severe cases of autism may be genetic in nature while less severe cases are merely the result of an individual's aptitudes being skewed.

It has been recently shown that the deletion of a section of chromosome 17 results in a 14-fold increase in the chance of having schizophrenia or autism spectrum disorders. David H. Ledbetter, a genetics professor at Emory University stated "Not all people with autism, a developmental delay or schizophrenia have this deletion, but all people who have the chromosome change will develop some form of the disorders, whether it's mild or strong enough for a diagnosis"[2].

Recently, a possible link between early childhood heavy metal exposure, especially exposure to lead, has been postulated[3].

Recent research has revealed a so-called "insanity virus," called human endogenous retrovirus W or HERV-W, which so far has been shown to be connected to Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis. Researchers are proposing a similar tie-in with a version of Herpes Simplex Virus attached to DNA as a possible cause of Autism.[4]

Genetic interactions are quite complex, but this has shed light on a major piece of the puzzle.

The vegan and animal rights activist group PETA has launched a scare campaign claiming that the ingestion of dairy products from cow's milk causes autism. There is no scientific basis for this belief.[5]

Vaccine hysteria[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Vaccine hysteria § Autism

In the 1990s and the 2000s, vaccine hysteria linking childhood vaccinations to autism broke on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, it was fueled by Andrew Wakefield's study implicating the MMR vaccine. In the US, the focus was on thimerosal, a preservative used in some "dead" vaccines. Both hypotheses have been thoroughly discredited by the medical community worldwide, yet some people still hold on to this idea.

Many autistic individuals[6] point out, with appreciable validity, that even if vaccines caused autism, advising against vaccination sends a message that autistic people would be better off dead of horrible and easily preventable diseases and therefore argue that anti-vaccine campaigning should be prosecuted as a hate crime. One example is that Karen McCarron felt guilty over "giving" her daughter Katie autism by vaccinating her and then trying to atone for it with a "mercy killing".[7] This[8] phenomenon[9] is neither unique[10] nor isolated[11] to autism.

The Autism omnibus trial settled the case.

Antidepressant hysteria[edit]

Antidepressants do considerable good in the pregnant mothers that benefit from their effects, and these benefits translate to the child directly. Being depressed and/or not eating and/or inflicting self-harm and/or spiking your stress hormones from anxiety - those things harm the developing child immensely.[12]

In a nutshell[edit]

Pseudoscientific treatment[edit]

If I use anti-virus on my computer will it get autism?

Because autism is so poorly understood and caregivers often feel helpless in the face of it, autism has attracted much attention from the pseudoscience and alternative medicine communities. These individuals primarily prey on the parents of autistic children and make a fortune peddling false cures and therapies, including chelation therapy and lupron therapy. As with most alternative therapy, the results and effectiveness are not scientifically verified. Some therapies such as chelation and specialized diets can in fact be harmful.


People in desperate situations who are told by the "establishment" that there is no hope are prime for manipulation. Parents of autistic children are in just such a category. They are desperate, helpless and want to help their children. Many will then fall victim to the people who use them as a vehicle to push an anti-vaccination agenda.[14]

Autism itself carries several things with it that make it more susceptible to cranks and quacks. Autism usually doesn't manifest itself in detectable symptoms until after the first year of life. This means many parents believe their child was totally "normal" and then, at around one year of age, suddenly changed. While this is not actually what happens, the perception is real. The subtlety of this is lost on most people who search for the "cause" of what went wrong, and instead of looking at the beginning of development, they look for things that occurred right around the time of diagnosis. There are plenty of things that happen around the first year of life, and this leads many people to make the jump from correlation to causation.

Also, the definition of autism has become more encompassing (the "Asperger's Syndrome" complex), diagnosis is getting better, and the focus on diagnosis is stronger; at the same time, the growth of industries such as information technology has drawn many slightly autistic couples into close proximity: "Guys who might never have had a prayer of finding a kindred spirit suddenly discover that she's hacking Perl scripts in the next cubicle."[15] The former has led to an increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism, while the latter has led, possibly, to an increase in the number of actually autistic children.

All of this combines to lead people to believe there is an increasing "epidemic" of autism and that it's being caused by an external environmental toxin that the children are exposed to around their first year. None of this is true; our understanding of what autism is and how it emerges is increasing exponentially. All of the evidence points towards a genetic/developmental cause, and none of the environmental causes pushed by quacks and cranks have ever demonstrated any convincing evidence.[citation needed]

False therapies and cures[edit]

Major players[edit]

Savant Syndrome[edit]

Savant SyndromeWikipedia's W.svg (known pejoratively as "idiot savant") describes a person who has exceptional ability in one specialised field with accompanying reduced ability in others. They are often characterised by an inability to relate with other people except in the field of their ability.[citation needed]

Common specialisations of savants include mental arithmetic, music, chess, memory (often photographic or eidetic) of what to other people is trivia, and complex 'artistic' representationalism. Although this is a rare occurrence, the impressive abilities of the individuals are often widely reported. Why they excel in a specific field is unknown, though some have speculated that they may find some comfort by focusing their attention and energies on that field.[citation needed]

Despite the fact that many savants appear in the media, the vast majority of those persons who have associated developmental disabilities rarely exhibit such traits.[citation needed]

External links[edit]