If your baby doesn't look at you when you talk to her…

If he doesn't try to play games that other babies his age are playing…

If she rarely smiles…

If he points to things when he wants them instead of telling you…

If he picks up toys once in a while, but he does the same thing with them over and over…

If she has extreme temper tantrums...

What is it? Why does it happen? And how do you parent an autistic child?These are just a few of the signs that your child may have autism. One or two characteristics alone doesn't mean that your child is autistic, but taken together, they should raise questions and prompt a professional evaluation by a specialist.

Autism is a frightening word to parents. Children can have it, adults can have it. But what is it? Why does it happen? And how do you parent an autistic child?

To begin, Autism isn't just a single disorder. It's really one of five different neurological disorders that fall under the Pervasive Developmental Disorders category. The DSM-IV-TR states that this collection of disorders is a severe and pervasive impairment in numerous areas of development.

The five disorders in this group are: Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), Rett's Disorder, and PDD-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

According to the Center For Disease Control And Prevention, one in 250 births result in autism, meaning that about 1.5 million Americans have some form of this disorder. The Department Of Education suggests that that number is climbing, and that in the next decade or so, there could be over 4 million cases in the United States alone.

Autism occurs more often in boys than girls, and can affect anyone, regardless of race, income, education, or lifestyle.

It is often seen as a mysterious disorder with unknown origins. Although the precise cause of autism is unknown, it is believed to be caused by abnormal brain structure or function. Studies show that there is a difference in brain structure is autistic children and non-autistic children. Researchers constantly study a number of theories relating to genetics, heredity, environmental, and history of medical problems to help narrow down the exact cause, and there is even a new, controversial theory that suggests that childhood vaccinations are linked to the rising number of Autism cases.

Myths Associated With Autism

Myth 1 is that children with autism don't or can't make eye contact. They do often, but it may not be as frequent as other children, or as often as parents would like to see.

Myth 2 is that children with autism don't laugh or smile. Many children with autism do smile.

Myth 3 is that children with autism don't display affection or emotion, while in fact, many show a range of emotions to others and their environment, negative and positive.

Myth 4 is that autistic children aren't able to communicate. Some of them do, on different levels. Some speak very well, while others communicate via pictures or sign language.

Signs and Symptoms

Some autistic children are so unresponsive they appear to be deafThe signs and symptoms of autism range from mild to severe, and can demonstrate a few, some, or all of the characteristics. Some autistic children are so unresponsive they appear to be deaf, while some children have only minor delays in speech and social development.

Autism may or may not be evident in children until the ages of 2 to 6, but the characteristics can be noticed as early as infancy.

Another characteristic is communication. Autistic children sometimes talk "at" others instead of "to" others, and speak in long chunks of sentences rather than exchanging dialogue with other people. They can appear to be fixed on a single topic and will speak at almost endlessly about it.

Autistic children seem to be creatures of habit. They love continuous motion and repeated movements or phrases. They rock and spin toys or objects repeatedly. They enjoy doing the same thing the same way all the time.

Some autistic children hit their heads on the floor or the wall, and even engage in repeated self-injury.

They often express their needs in non-verbal ways: Pointing, gesturing, grabbing, crying.

They appear to be distressed for no apparent reason.

Some autistic children seem content to be alone, and even appear to be standoff-ish or uninterested in socializing with others.

Tantrums, lack of affection, and little eye contact are also common traits of autism. Unusual play or speech patterns may present itself, along with fixations to belongings, toys, or other household items.

When reacting to pain, autistic children can be very sensitive to it or not sensitive enough and may not display an appropriate sense of fear or danger. They also may be hypersensitive to stimuli like sights, sounds, smells, and touch.

Autistic children can be overactive or inactive, and inconsistent in both gross and fine motor skills.

The percentage of autistic children who develop epilepsy is 20 to 30, and children whose verbal skills decline to deterioration before the age of 3 are at risk of seizures or epilepsy.

Autistic adolescents occasionally experience depression or behavioral difficulties.

A battery of tests are given to pinpoint or exclude other causes for these symptoms There isn't a specific medical test for autism. A diagnosis is based on several factors, including behavior, verbal and motor skills, communication, and development. Because the symptoms are so closely aligned with other disorders, a battery of tests are given to pinpoint or exclude other causes for these symptoms.

Parents may, at first, believe that their child is showing signs of mental retardation, deafness, or other behavioral or psychological disorders. Yes, some autistic children can have mental retardation or psychological problems, but it is not necessarily a result of autism. Careful evaluation and history given by parents are important factors in helping to diagnose autism.

Early diagnosis is key to the overall development, education, treatment, and functioning of the autistic child.

Treatment

Although there is no known cure for autism, the strategy of dealing with autism includes addressing the symptoms through therapy, behavioral intervention, and family support both in and out of the home.

Treatment focuses on improving impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests

If You're the Parent of an Autistic Child…

An important thing to remember is that it isn't your fault. It isn't a mental illness. Institutionalizing your child isn't necessary, although it used to be a common practice. It isn't something your child chooses. And the best news of all is that the situation isn't hopeless. Your child can receive services, improve his or her quality of life, attend school, and be a part of family and community.