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Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that emerges in early childhood. It affects the way a person communicates and limits his/her ability to relate to others in a meaningful way, develop friendships, show signs of affection, appreciate cuddles or understand other people's feelings. Because the severity and variation of symptoms, the disorder is often referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ASD. Autism affects more children than cancer, cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis combined. One in every 250 babies has autistic spectrum disorder. The condition is four to five times more common in boys than in girls.

Discovering your child has autism can be a very slow process and is likely to be very upsetting for the whole family and friends. The disorder doesn't always emerge with the same symptoms and occurs earlier in some children than others. The way most children react to situations or other people will develop as they grow older and enjoy playing games and mingling with other children. Most children would find it very difficult not to make friends or receive affection from those they hold dear.

However, some children don't seem to want to do these things and appear distant and aloof. It's as if they are not aware of their physical surroundings. These children find it difficult to verbalize or communicate their needs and tend to display repetitive and other odd behaviours. In severe cases the child doesn't speak at all. Such children lack any awareness of others and show a disinterest in social situations. These are the common characteristics of autism.

Children with autism will display very different symptoms. The severity of these symptoms will also differ from child to child. All children with autism will display characteristics of impaired social interaction, impaired communication and social skills and delayed language development or absence of speech. They will also have a restricted range of interests and activities. A number of children will show severe symptoms and will need special care for the rest of their lives.

However, some children with milder forms of autism, such as Asperger's syndrome don't show significant delays in language and cognitive development. Except for a delay in social interaction, these children have a normal acquisition of self-skills or adaptive behaviour for their age. Intelligence tests in these children tend to be within the normal range and, on the whole, their prognosis appears to be significantly better. Several children with Asperger's syndrome can enjoy normal schooling and grow into adults who are capable of gainful employment and personal self- sufficiency. Others on the other hand, will need special schooling and may require further help in adult life.

Because the symptoms of autism vary so much and can surface at different stages, they are often difficult to recognize. Parents may not always be immediately aware that their child has a problem and don't seek advice and help from their doctor or a healthcare professional until much later, when the child's behaviour causes serious problems. This will have an impact on the diagnosis and the outcome for the child. Leaving autism undiagnosed and untreated can have a negative impact, not only on the development and the wellbeing of the child in question, but also on family- life.

There is no proven cure for autism and its exact cause is still not known. However, children with autism will benefit from an early diagnosis and early intervention. This will enable the implementation of dedicated developmental, behavioural and educational programmes tailored to the child's needs. For instance, a special education programme can help reduce the core symptoms and behaviours of autism. This not only improves the quality of life for the child, but also for the parents, siblings and other relatives. After all, autism poses a very heavy burden on families.

Treatment of autism often includes the use of medication. Although autism can't be cured, doctors frequently prescribe medication to treat or target the associated symptoms and behavioural problems of autism. A number of different classes of medication are used to treat these problems. However, some of these medications can have considerable side effects. Because their use in children or adolescents with autism has not yet been fully researched, most doctors are reluctant to prescribe these medications and limit them to the most severe cases.

For a treatment programme to be successful, parents, caregivers and/or siblings will have to play a significant part. Involving the whole family in the treatment programme will not only improve the outcome for the child, but also improve acceptance and lead to a better quality of life for the whole family.