Autism is a spectrum of disorders caused by abnormal brain development that can lead to diminished social skills, as well as
unusual ways of learning and reactions to sensations. A spectrum disorder, meaning people with autism can have a range of
symptoms. Mildly affected, children develop life skills at an early age. Severely afflicted children may be unable to function in
almost any setting.

As many as 1 percent of the population of children in the U.S. ages 3-17 have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the
Autism Society of America. The number of school-age children getting treatment soared by 600 percent, in recent years.
Autism cases are on the rise nationwide, experts say the disorder affects as many as one in 100 children. Autism is the fastest
growing population of special -needs students in the US, according to data from the United States Department of Education.

The number of diagnoses seems to be increasing, but some argue this is simply because of a greater awareness of the
condition.  They also claim that the rise in new cases may be attributed to increased screening, better recognition,
pediatricians diagnosing it more often, and schools being apprehensive in treatment. The prevalence, number of children
diagnosed with autism  may have increased significantly in recent years, raising the question of whether foreign factors might
be involved. As well as the incidence, the cause is unclear. Many have speculated that genetic causes, pollution, food
additives, or childhood vaccinations may play roles.

Autism was fully recognized in 1994 by all states as a behavioral classification for school children, who receive individualized
attention whatever their diagnosis. Children classified by school special education programs as mentally retarded or learning
disabled have declined, with the rise in autism cases between 1994 and 2003. Before the 1980s, only one in 10,000 children
was diagnosed as autistic. Two decades later it’s diagnosed one in every 175 American children. As many as 1.5 million
Americans may have some form of autism, including milder variants, and the number is rising. Research estimates the number
of autistic children in the US could reach four million in the next decade.

Toxins in Vaccines

Government health authorities have been trying to dispel widely publicized concerns that vaccines with mercury, containing
preservative thimerosal, which is no longer used, were behind an autism epidemic. There are concerns that mercury might
somehow be connected to the rise in the number of children diagnosed with autism. Mercury is a known neuro-toxin and is
found all around us, especially in pollution.  The majority of children come across mercury through childhood vaccines. There
may be a subset of children that are more susceptible to mercury and therefore react this way in terms of the autism
spectrum. Some believe that autism can be effectively treated through special diets, nutritional supplements, and removal of

In recent years, it has been suggested that thiomersal in childhood vaccines could contribute to or cause neuro-developmental
disorders in children such as autism, and other disorders within the Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) spectrum and
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The basis for this claim is the introduction of an organic mercury
compound /wiki/Ethylmercurydirectly into the bloodstream of young children. Some opponents of the use of thiomersal argue
that this could have an effect on young children, who may have undeveloped immune and neurological systems that would be
affected in some way.  

The Institute of Medicine, which looked at the link between autism and childhood vaccines, has found no "causal
relationship."  The American Academy of Pediatrics and many scientists reject the link between vaccines and autism and are
concerned the debate over mercury will discourage parents from vaccinating their children. “I think there's a real concern that
there's been a change in our environment,” said president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Research suggests that it is not the vaccines themselves but a mercury-based preservative called thiomersal, used in some
vaccine preparations, which may be a cause of autism.  Scientist research into the possible side effects of MMR found no
association between MMR and autism. Several independent groups, including the National Academy of Sciences, have also
conducted investigations and concluded that the evidence does not support a link. The CDC and some medical organizations
continue to assert that no available evidence supports a causal link between thiomersal and autism.

There is concern on both sides of the debate in regards to motivating factors. Those who condemn thimerosal suspect that
government agencies and pharmaceutical companies are denying a connection for fear of financial liability and the creation of
mistrust in vaccinations. Those who deny a connection between thimerosal and neurological disorders have charged
thimerosal's critics as medically and scientifically unqualified, emotionally distraught, or interested in pursuing litigation. Others
point out that if the mercury in vaccines was the culprit, the rate of autism would have started to decline after 1999. That
year, health authorities urged manufacturers to remove thimerosal from all childhood vaccines except the flu shot in order to
make sure parents vaccinate their children.

Genetic Roots

Duke University Medical Center researchers have found evidence of a genetic link between autism and several
chromosomomal anomalies. Researchers have identified seven chromosomal anomalies on six chromosomes in 12 children
with autism. The findings indicate the anomalies might be associated with autism. The evidence for a genetic basis for autism
has been well established. To date, more than five possible specific regions of DNA, have been identified that could potentially
lead to an increased risk of autism. If so, they are significant because they could help researchers identify genes involved in
causing autism.

Chromosome anomalies can occur by chance and may be unrelated to autism. Researchers now have to sort out which
anomalies are due to chance and which ones are involved in causing autism. Genetics will help in finding the root cause of
autism. If the fundamental cause is found, it will help target possible therapies and keys to prevention. Scientists are closing in
on the handful of genes linked to autism, by eliminating those not connected with the condition. They hope that within two
years, their efforts will identify most of the genetic "faults" which contribute to its development. Evidence insinuates that there
are at least four, and perhaps as many as 10 genes which play a role in autism. Autism is an umbrella term for a large number
of similar "developmental disorders.”

Finding the genes, while important, is only the first step toward finding ways to help autistic children, and their parents. It is
likely that other things have a mien on the development of the condition, as yet unidentified "environmental" factors which
may help trigger the decline, or how severe the autism is in any child. However, once the genes have been identified, scientists
can continue to unravel these mysterious connections, devise screening tests for children, and perhaps even treatments which
could prevent autism, or even reverse it in affected children. They are calling for increased research into environmental
factors that might cause or contribute to autism, increased research into therapies and possible cures to treat autism, and
greater funding of programs to help autistic people learn to live with their disorder.                

Range of Outcomes

Children who are diagnosed with autism face a wide range of outcomes. Some are reported to have learned speech and/or
writing, self-care, and social skills on their own. Others experience miraculous recoveries and begin conducting in a way that
is identical to the way typical children behave, either for no apparent reason or from a few simple alterations in diet. Some
become mainstreamed after years of hard work and intensive training. Some develop slowly, but never lose their diagnoses.
Some stay at a level society perceives as low functioning, yet others are fairly typical during childhood and report becoming
"more autistic" in adulthood.

While some people see early intervention as crucial for autism, the prognosis is also uncertain the younger the child. A
diagnostic development path may be confused with a more severe disorder, and the child may progress on his/her own.
Research indicates that the human mind and nervous system remain susceptible for longer than originally thought, and people
with autism, like those with learning disabilities, have been known to cognitively develop throughout their lives. There is a
broad consensus in the medical community to the effect that autistic behaviors can be improved through training and through
medical or educational interventions, though there are apparently no agreements on treatment regimes and objectives.
Autism is on the Rise
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