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What Is Autism?

Question: What is autism?


Michael Wigler: Well, there are a triad of \r\nbehaviors that\r\nare the earmarks of autism.  The\r\ninclude difficulty in social interactions, delay in the development of \r\nspeech\r\nand communication.  And those are\r\ndistinguishable and repetitive behaviors, almost obsessive-like \r\nbehaviors.  


The recognition of this triad as a condition we \r\ncall autism\r\nbegan only in the late ‘30s, and as the diagnostic criteria began to be \r\nmore\r\nwidely applied, more and more children were being called autistic.  And the definition, I think, I mean,\r\nwhen people now talk about autism spectrum disorders where a child has \r\nvarying\r\ndegrees of these abnormalities.  It\r\nis not, in fact, an extremely well-defined disorder.  It\r\n has sloppy boundaries to normal behavior.  We all\r\n know people that are awkward\r\nsocially, there are many people who learn language late in life, and we \r\nall may\r\nknow people that have stutters, or have obsessive behaviors, or even \r\nhang\r\nwringing.  So there is something of\r\na continuum of all three of these things. \r\nThat’s not a condition whose boundaries are well-defined.  Yet, if you meet a child with autism,\r\nyou can generally say that there is something profoundly wrong here. 


But it’s a hard disorder to define better than \r\nthat.  And probably the reason it’s harder to\r\ndefine better than that is that the number of genes involved.  The number of underlying causes that\r\ncan create this triad is very great. \r\nFor example, the syndrome itself is enormously varied.  And if you have listened to somebody\r\nwho studies autistic children—children with autism, you’ll frequently \r\nhear them\r\nsay that each child that they see is different than the next.  It’s not really a syndrome in the way\r\nthat Down syndrome is a syndrome. \r\nThere are a variety of genetic disorders that are frequently—you \r\ncan\r\nalmost tell that the children who have these disorders have the same \r\nunderlying\r\ncause, because they’ll actually look alike.  It’s \r\nnot just Down syndrome that has that property, Progeria\r\nhas that property.  There are a\r\nnumber of childhood disorders where\r\nthe children who have these disorders actually look alike.  


That’s not the case in autism.  Each\r\n child has—is sort of wonderfully different than the\r\nnext child, so there’s a huge amount of variability.  And\r\n I think this has confounded the general public because\r\nit appears that the rate of autism has been going up so dramatically.  In fact, I think that’s mainly due to\r\nincreased diagnosis.

Recorded April 12, 2010

The genetics professor describes one of the world’s most complex and controversial disorders.

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