Every child comes into the world with a kind of "wild flower garden" of electrical connections growing inside their brain, Shih says. As the weeks and months pass by, environmental cues help to prune down the brain's wildly expanding connections, allowing only those needed most -- for example, those governing language and hearing skills -- to develop and grow strong. As they do, communication skills and emotional development begins, as babies learn to talk and interact with others.
But in autistic children, says Shih, the brain's "garden" doesn't undergo this natural "pruning" process. Instead, all the synapses and connections continue to grow unchecked. The end result: the child's brain circuitry is bombarded with so many conflicting messages, through so many pathways, it can't make solid connections to any of them, Shih says.
"Instead, they remain locked in a very private world," he says.
Although myths also abound as to the cause of autism, no one really knows why this disorder occurs. Shih, however, believes the strongest evidence to date can be found in the gene pool, which, he says, is the only place where links to the complete spectrum of autistic behaviors can be found.
"It is really only when you look to the genetic level that you see the common denominators that universally almost every child with autism shares," says Shih.
It hasn't been determined if environmental factors exacerbate genetic tendencies. Researchers continue to explore possible links to diet, stress during pregnancy, as well as the role of childhood vaccines during the first few years of life.
Regardless of any environmental connections that may one day be ruled in or out, Shih and Perry believe that a better understanding of the genetic underpinnings of autism will ultimately lead to better treatments and, possibly, a cure.
Until that time, they say, awareness and education are a parent's best allies . two factors that can make that critical early diagnosis possible.
According to the National Alliance for Autism Research, parents can look for the following warning signs of autistic behavior:
Parents should talk to their health-care provider about an autism evaluation if they notice any significant behavioral changes in their child, including:
More information: To learn more about autism, visit the National Alliance for Autism Research, The Autism Society of America and The National Library of Medicine.
Colette Bouchez is an award winning medical journalist with more than twenty years experience. She is the former medical writer for the New York Daily News, and the top selling author of The V Zone, co-author of Getting Pregnant, Your Perfectly Pampered Pregnancy and upcoming book, Your Perfectly Pampered Menopause. Currently a daily medical correspondent for HealthDay News Service/The New York Times Syndicate, and WebMD, her popular consumer health articles appear daily online, as well as in newspapers nationwide and in Europe and Japan. She is a regular contributor to USAToday.com, ABCNews.com, MSNBC.com and more than two dozen radio and television news stations nationwide. She lives in New York City.
Copyright © Colette Bouchez. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.