Mysteries of the mind: April is Autism Awareness Month

In many ways, Erin Bartholomae is a typical soon-to-be college graduate.

"I'm nervous about what I'll do after graduation," Erin said. "But graduating? The actual day? Woo-hoo!"

But she's not typical. In 1987 at the age of 2 1/2, Erin was diagnosed autistic. Though she is highly functional, the disorder has significantly impacted her life and that of her family.

According to the Autism Society of America, autism is "a complex developmental disability that affects the normal function of the brain, impacting development in areas of social interaction and communication skills." People with autism struggle with verbal and nonverbal communication. The term "autism" was first used by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943. Kanner, a psychiatrist and physician, applied the term to a group of children with severe social, behavioral and communication deficiencies. Over time, the definition has been modified, and autism is now recognized as a spectrum disorder that affects each individual differently and at varying degrees.

Autism is the most common of five so-called pervasive development disorders. Other PPDs include Asperger's Syndrome and Rett's Syndrome. About 1.5 million people in the United States have some form of autism according to the ASA, and that number grows by about 10 to 17 percent each year. Generally diagnosed within the first three years of life, autism is four times more common in boys than girls. It is not affected by race, ethnicity, income level or social standing. The cause of the disorder is unknown, though there is a suspected genetic link, and researchers are looking into possible links between autism and problems during pregnancy and delivery, viral infection, metabolic imbalances or exposure to environmental chemicals.

One thing is certain: autism and autistic behavior is not a choice. The ASA's website states, "Whatever the cause, it is clear that children with autism and PDD are born with the disorder or born with the potential to develop it. It is not caused by bad parenting. Autism is not a mental illness. Children with autism are not unruly kids who choose not to behave."

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