The Etiology of Autism

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Autism is a behavioral syndrome usually presenting behavior abnormalities before the child is 30 months of age. These behavioral abnormalities include marked social deficits, specific language abnormalities and stereotyped, repetitive behaviors (Piven, 1990). Although the exact etiology of autism is not known it is now believed that it is a dysfunction of one or more unidentified brain systems and not the result of parental and environmental influences. Variations in symptomology and in prognosis among autistic persons depend on both the severity and the extent of the underlying brain dysfunction (Repin, 1991). Several studies have been conducted including neuroanatomic imaging, microscopic neuroanatomic observations and positron emission tomography in order to locate this dysfunction. Although some of the studies have reported abnormalities in various areas of the brain among the autistic patients, no common site or abnormality has yet been found.

The criteria for diagnosing autism are those listed in the revision of the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R) of the American Psychiatric Association. According to this, the person must have been symptomatic since childhood and manifest a specified number of deficits that are abnormal for their developmental level in three aspects of behavior. These include qualitative impairment in reciprocal social interaction, qualitative impairment of verbal and non-verbal communication and imaginative activity, and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests. These criteria were used to select the autistic patients for most of these studies.

The presenting symptomology of autistic children is the abnormal reciprocal soci...

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