The latest estimates indicate that one in 88 children in the United States is affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The rate of ASD diagnosis has been steadily rising over the last decade.
One of the questions I am most commonly asked as a psychiatrist
specializing in child psychiatry is, "What causes autism?" The
dissatisfying, but truthful answer is that nobody really knows. It is
probably due to a variety of factors, including genetic and
environmental influences. My answer, however, often leaves the
questioner feeling a little bit shortchanged, especially with the
current surge of new reports linking yet another "risk factor" to
autism. In the last couple of months alone, air pollution, gluten
sensitivity, maternal antibodies, a lack of folic acid and a number of
genetic mutations have all emerged as possible causes of this spectrum
disorder. Hence the question arises: why is it so difficult for doctors
and scientists to pinpoint the cause for this growing and serious
Perhaps a better way for me to answer this question is by clarifying
that, first of all, we must appreciate that there is no "typical"
autistic person. The diagnosis of ASD encompasses an enormous and
diverse group of individuals with many different combinations of
symptoms and a range of functional severity. This has some doctors now
saying, "When you have seen one person with autism, you have seen one
person with autism." It also helps to explain why the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has come to be a better way of speaking about this condition.
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