Autism is a devastating psychiatric disorder:
It strikes children between the ages of 12 and 36 months-sometimes manifesting with a sudden and rapid disappearance of early language acquisition. It is a lifelong disorder in which cute-often beautiful-children grow into very impaired adults. A large segment of the autistic community never acquires (or loses) all functional language and, even for those that do develop language, it is often unusual and alienating.
Socials skills are significantly impaired even in the highest functioning individuals with autism. A rigidity or attachment to sameness creates compulsive behavior on a scale matched only by the severest cases of obses-sive-compulsive disorder. Stereotypic movements are common. Severe sensory integration problems are well described in books written by some of the highest functioning autistic individuals. Descriptions-such as "when it rains, the sound on the roof is deafening, it sounds like it's drumming on my head"-only begin to give us an idea of what the subjective life of an autistic individual must be like.
The most severe behavioral problems present routinely. Aggression towards others and self-abusive behaviors are common, as is compulsive "picking" to the point of bleeding. Almost all of the routine aspects of life, including eating, sleeping and fundamental social awareness, can never be taken for granted. Some families with autistic members become housebound because the affected family member's behaviors preclude going out together in public.
An article in the New York Times today discusses screening for autism:
If detected early, behavioral therapy can greatly increase functioning in some young autistic individuals. Unfortunately, the required behavioral therapy is often intense, requiring over 20 hours per week in some cases.
Experts say that for all the promise it might hold, a screening technique that can consistently detect children younger than 18 months, not to mention in infancy, is probably years away. To the extent that that is even possible, scientists say they would then have to grapple with a much larger problem: providing treatment to an explosion of small children when services are already stretched thin.
"We're going to have more and more children under 3 getting diagnosed," said Dr. Volkmar. "But sadly, it looks like we're going to have fewer and fewer services for them."