Autism, a rare but devastating disorder of childhood, was originally defined by the physician, Leo Kanner, in 1943, as a constitutional inability to make emotional contact with others. More than a decade later, it was widely agreed that the two central deficits in autism were profound social impairment and insistence by the child on sameness in behavioral routines (i.e., behavioral stereotypies). Currently, the received view designates a triad of symptoms as central to the autistic syndrome: (1) social impairment, (2) deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication, and (3) behavioral stereotypies (e.g., hand-flapping, repetitive play behaviors).
The nature of the social deficits has increasingly taken front stage in studies of autism. Moreover, newer theories of intellective processes indicate that social "intelligence" consists of two essential components. Intrapersonal abilities include (a) one's affective range and intensity, (b) the ability to discriminate among the emotions, (c) the ability to label them appropriately, and (d) the ability to use them to guide one's behavior. Interpersonal abilities include (a) the ability to decode feelings, intentions, and motivations in others, (b) recognize characteristics among people (e.g., age, gender, and ethnicity) and (c) influence others to behave in desired ways. Autistic children's social impairment appears to involve deficits in both intrapersonal and interpersonal abilities.
Autistic spectrum disorders include autism, Asperger’s disorder, Rett’s syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder. Asperger’s is a milder form of autism that does not include significant deficits in cognitive and language development. Rett’s syndrome is typically found in very young females who despite a brief period of normal development in the first year or two of life begin to regress by avoiding social contact with others, refusing to speak, as well as evincing an inability to control their actions and behaviors. On the other hand, childhood disintegrative disorder generally only affects males who demonstrate normal development in the first 2-3 years of life but then begin to deteriorate in social, language, and motor development in the ensuring years.
There are many treatment options for autistic spectrum disorders including intensive behavioral therapy, psychoactive medications, as well as some dietary and nutritional approaches.
The National Institute of Health has a extensive discussion of autistic spectrum disorders on their web pages at click here.