Autism is one of the commonest and also one of the most scarcely researched developmental disorders.
The financial impact of autism is only now beginning to be assessed. Research published in 2001 and now being updated suggests that the cost to the UK of autism exceeds £1bn per year, with the average additional lifetime costs for living support and education being estimated at nearly £3m per person.
The emotional impact of autism can be devastating for the families of those affected, and even in the case of high-functioning people with autism levels of mental health problems and depression are high as individuals struggle to cope in everyday society. Whilst autism is not a disease and there are those who argue that people with autism should be regarded simply as different rather than disordered, there is no doubt of the very real distress that autism can cause.
Autism is a complex brain issue that significantly affects a person's ability to communicate, respond to his or her surroundings, and form relationships with others. It can also involve restricted interests and repetitive behaviours. First identified as a distinct condition more than 50 years ago, autism is typically diagnosed around the age of three and lasts a lifetime. It affects people of all racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, although boys are affected at four times the rate of girls.
Autism is thought of on a spectrum because symptoms and its extremity vary from individual to individual, ranging from those with no speech and reduced cognitive ability to those of high IQ and typically highly-focused interests and abilities. Asperger's Syndrome in which speech and IQ are normal forms part of the autistic spectrum but is usually diagnosed later. Current estimates suggest that 1 in around 166 people worldwide has an autistic spectrum disorder. There are estimated to be around half a million people on the autistic spectrum in the UK.
The precise cause or causes of autism are at present uncertain, although scientists think that there is a genetic component or predisposition to autism. Also unknown is the effect, if any, of environmental influences. There are no biological markers or specific medical treatments for autism and diagnosis is still based solely on observed behaviours. Autism is not attributed, anymore as it once was, to absence of affection from the child's mother.
Levels of autism appear to be rising, but it is unclear at present whether this is as a result of improved identification and diagnosis or whether there are other factors involved.