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Autism is everywhere, it seems. As better diagnostic techniques are developed and more children are identified for treatment, media coverage of the condition is also on the rise, and parents may be confused on the signs, the causes, and how to best help their children.

Rolanda Maxim, MD, a specialist in developmental disorders at the Knights of Columbus Developmental Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center and Saint Louis University, notes that there still is no medical cure for autism, which affects language and social skills.  However, with early diagnosis, earlier therapy can begin and is more likely to be helpful.

Here, she answers some of parents' most common questions about autism:

How prevalent is autism?
Autism is part of an umbrella of disorders called "Autism Spectrum Disorders." These vary in symptoms and severity, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in every 150 children has some form. Boys are four times as likely as girls to develop autism.

What causes autism?
While the exact cause of autism is unknown, physicians do know that there is a genetic link. Most likely, something occurs in the child's brain development before he or she is born, Dr. Maxim says.

The media has suggested that immunizations, diet, allergies or hormones could contribute to a child developing autism, but Dr. Maxim said that is not true. She reinforces that all children should be immunized to protect them from other preventable and potentially deadly illnesses.

How do I know if my child has autism?
"It is always a challenge to make a formal diagnosis, because there is no clear-cut criteria. Every case is different," Dr. Maxim said. "But there are a few hallmark signs to look for."

Age 6 months: If a child does not smile back at you or sustain eye contact for more than a few moments. The child may not turn to you when you call his or her name.

12 months: Child does not imitate faces and clapping, or gestures such as waving. He or she will not follow a pointing command from a parent, and will not use pointing to signal things he or she wants.

In general, communication and social interaction delays, and repetitive interests and behavior, can all signal possible autism. The CDC's "Act Early" Web site gives detailed information on child development by age.

What should I do if I think my child may have autism?
Early diagnosis is crucial to ensure that your child receives the treatment he or she needs. Communication and language develop in the first few years of life, so earlier treatment can dramatically improve outcomes, Dr. Maxim says.

Pediatricians screen children for autism at 18 months and 24 months. In addition, Parents as Teachers in St. Louis have been trained to recognize signs of autism for children as young as six months, and can help refer your child if needed. Parents as Teachers' services are available free of charge.

If your pediatrician suspects that your child has autism, he or she will refer you to a specialist for a formal diagnosis. This can take up to several months, so Dr. Maxim recommends that you enroll your child in special education or early therapies as soon as possible in the meantime.

Where can I find more information?
For more information on autism, please visit these links:


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