Autism is a brain abnormality. Its primary symptoms are communication problems, difficulty with social interactions, and extreme sensitivity to physical contact. Usually apparent between ages 1 and 3, it strikes boys 3-4 times more often than girls. The regressive form of the disease is particularly heartbreaking because children often develop normally and then suddenly lose their social skills without apparent cause.
Autism appears to be on the increase, although this may be due to better diagnostic methods and revised definitions of the disease. The cause of autism is not known, but is being actively researched. Some of the areas that are being considered are diet, vaccine sensitivity, and mercury poisoning. Gluten in the diet is being examined as a possible cause of autism. Because children with autism improve when gluten is removed from their diet, some speculate that it may be somehow toxic to some children, causing autism. Currently no study has confirmed an autism gluten link.
Claims that a link exists between autism and the MMR vaccine have been heavily publicized. This is because the incidences of autism have increased steadily since the vaccine was introduced and children who were developing normally before being given the vaccine begin to show symptoms afterward. Autism symptoms tend to show up for the first time in children of a certain age and the vaccine is typically given at about that age; this may be merely a coincidence.
To date, no major study has shown an autism vaccine link. A related idea suggests that exposure to mercury may cause autism. Mercury has long been known to impair brain function. It is found in flu vaccines deemed safe by respected American medical groups. Unborn babies may be exposed to mercury if their mother consumes fish that contains it. In addition, children can be exposed to mercury from industrial sources such as power plants fired by coal, paper mills, and cement factories.
A recent study has shown that children who live near these types of industries have a higher risk of developing autism, further substantiating the autism mercury link. The slow and difficult course of autism research is frustrating to many parents. Some have banded together to support one another and raise public awareness of autism and its probable causes. Although anecdotal evidence abounds, no scientifically verified cause of autism has yet been established.