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Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. In the great majority of cases, autistic disorders are present from birth or become apparent within the first three years of life.

The best-known types of autism are ‘typical autism’ and Asperger’s syndrome. People with typical autism have no interest in social interaction, little or no language, and tend to live in their own world. Asperger’s syndrome often applies to those who are more able, who have better language development, and who have more social contact.

The condition of autism was first described in 1943 by the American child psychologist Leo Kanner. Today, although its exact nature and causes remain unknown, autism is now generally recognised to be a neurological disorder in the brain, possibly of genetic origin.

The age at which autism begins is unknown, but it is nearly always recognised that something is wrong before the age of 30 months, sometimes as early as 12 months. It affects about 1 child in 2500. Boys are affected four times as often as girls are.

Autism causes behavioural patterns that can be deeply distressing to all concerned. It is of variable severity and takes different forms, ranging from a complete withdrawal from all social relationships and a total inability to use language meaningfully, to a much milder form of isolationism.

Asperger’s syndrome is a condition similar to, but usually less severe than autism, that affects about 1–2 persons in 1000, males more often than females. Affected people, who are normally intelligent, may be physically clumsy, may have unusually narrow interests bordering on obsessional behaviour, and may have difficulty in managing social relationships.

In autism, the outlook is best for those children who are able to speak and to respond. For children who remain mute after the age of five, the outlook is not as good.