by Colette Bouchez
The signs often show up early in a baby's life: He doesn't babble or coo like other infants. Later, he may fail to gesture, point or make eye contact.
As time passes, the child may have difficulty learning to talk or, frequently, not talk at all, even as he approaches his second birthday.
When these symptoms prevail, the diagnosis could be autism -- a complex brain disorder that can keep its victims locked in a private, silent world painfully disconnected from those who love them. In its most severe form, it can totally inhibit a child's ability to communicate, respond to his surroundings or develop the emotional connections necessary to form the most basic of relationships with others.
"When a child is finally diagnosed as autistic, most parents say they knew something was wrong, sometimes beginning shortly after birth," says Dr. Richard I. Perry, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Bellevue/New York University Medical Center.
Unfortunately, parents don't always get the medical validation they need. And that's something experts hope to change with education campaigns, like National Autism Awareness Month.
"One of the biggest problems with this disorder is that parents can have a very hard time persuading pediatricians and other professionals that there is something wrong with their kids beyond a normal slow development," Perry says.
There's a popular myth -- one of several surrounding autism -- that you can't diagnose this disease until a child is well into childhood, he says.
In reality, the signs are evident as early as 18 months of age, or sometimes even sooner, Perry says.
Another popular myth holds that because there's no specific treatment and no cure for autism, parents should be in no rush to get a diagnosis.
While as recently as 10 or 15 years ago that may have been true, experts say today studies show specific behavioral therapies can have a powerful impact on the course of autism. And the sooner they begin, the more difference they can make in a child's life.
"Generally, for a portion of the population, behavior intervention can help many individuals to learn, and lead a more regular and less-dependent life. And the earlier it begins, the better," says Andy Shih, director of research and programs at the National Alliance for Autism Research.
Other treatments, including antidepressants, can sometimes help as well. Again, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better, Perry says.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that some 400,000 Americans are diagnosed with autism. And males are diagnosed about four times more often than females.
However, a recent report by the California Department of Developmental Services puts the number much higher -- up to 1.5 million.
That figure has led to what some say is the creation of still another myth about autism -- namely, that rates are increasing and at an alarming pace. According to Shih, however, there are no concrete facts to support this conclusion.
"Officially, the jury is still out as to whether or not we are seeing a true increase. But what is more certain is that there's definitely more kids being diagnosed," Shih says. This may be due, in part, to changes in the clinical definition of autism, which now includes some children who were previously diagnosed with mental retardation, he says.
This recognition has helped to break down still another popular myth about autism -- that it is a form of mental retardation. While some experts once held this to be true, doctors today know this is not the case.
"In children with mental retardation, there is a fixed level of intelligence, usually earmarked by a low IQ. But there is also an enormous capacity to love and to interact with others," Perry says.
In autistic children, he says, the IQ can vary dramatically from low to extremely high, but there is always a serious void in terms of social interaction that you don't see in mental retardation.
While no one is sure why autism occurs, Shih says some of the newest theories focus on the brain's rapid growth shortly after birth.