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What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by behavior limitations that include impaired social interaction, problems with spoken and unspoken communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. These problems can range from mild to disabling. Related conditions include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS). Between three and six children out of every 1,000 are estimated to have autism. Boys are four times more likely to be affected than girls.

What are the symptoms of autism?
The hallmark of autism is impaired social interaction. Parents may notice during infancy that a baby is unresponsive to people or will focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. Sometimes, a child with autism may appear to be developing normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to others.

These children may not respond to their names and may avoid making eye contact with others. They don't pick up social cues such as the tone of voice or facial expressions and, as a result, don't grasp what others are thinking or feeling. They don't watch other people's faces for clues to appropriate behavior and don't know how to play with other children. They lack empathy.

Many of these children engage in repetitive movements (rocking or twirling) or may hurt themselves by biting or banging their heads. They tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of "I" or "me." Some speak in a sing-song voice only about a narrow range of topics.

Many children with autism have a reduced sensitivity to pain, but are abnormally sensitive to sound and touch. As a result, they may resist being cuddled or hugged. Children with autism appear to be at higher than normal risk for fragile X syndrome (a cause of mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis (growth of tumors on the brain), epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder.

What are the causes of autism?
No one knows, but researchers suspect that both genetics and environment contribute to the disorder. They have identified a number of genes associated with autism, and studies have found irregularities in several regions of the brain in autistic people. Some research has suggested part of the problem may be abnormal levels of serotonin or other brain chemicals. If so, this could mean that autism stems from disruption of fetal brain development due to defects in genes that control brain growth and regulate how neurons communicate with each other. But these are theories that have yet to be proved. Although it is suspected some forms may be caused by in-utero exposures to harmful chemicals, research has confirmed that parental practices after birth are not to blame.

What is the conventional treatment for autism?
There is no cure for autism. Instead, treatment focuses on helping children develop social and language skills and on family counseling for parents and siblings coping with an autistic child. Sometimes, physicians prescribe antidepressants to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder that can occur among autistic youngsters. Other drugs that may be useful are anti-psychotic medications for severe behavioral problems, anticonvulsants to treat seizures, if any, and stimulant drugs (used to treat attention deficit disorder) to help lessen hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

What therapies does Dr. Weil recommend for autism?
Some studies suggest that autistic behavior may stem from allergies or intolerances to the proteins in milk (casein) and in wheat and other grains (gluten). Limited research does show that some children with autism can't break down these proteins completely. Instead, fragments known as peptides get into the bloodstream and central nervous system before eventually being eliminated from the body. Several groups of researchers have identified these peptides in urine samples from children with autism. Some of the peptides are chemically similar to morphine and, in theory, may be the agents that cause autistic behavior.

It is well worth trying a gluten-and-casein-free diet to see if it helps a child with autism. Ample anecdotal evidence attests to marked improvement in some youngsters after foods containing gluten and casein were removed from their diets. Parents interested in exploring dietary approaches should read, Is This Your Child? by Doris Rapp, M.D.

Dr. Weil also recommend making sure that children with autism get sufficient omega-3 fatty acids. Recent research indicates that supplementing the diet with these beneficial fats can help address autism as well as depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Good food sources of omega-3s include wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and bluefish. Omega-3 sources other than fish are few: walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and the oils extracted from them, and, to a lesser extent, soy and canola oils and specially fortified eggs.

Children with autism can also benefit from probiotics, products containing the helpful bacteria that normally inhabit the human digestive tract. Probiotics can decrease leakage of large molecules from the gut that can trigger immune reactions with effects on brain function.

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