Autism is not curable but can be helped with behavioral treatment and sometimes medication.
"People have a much better idea about the diversity of autism. There's such a range of both severity ... language handicap and mental retardation," said prominent autism researcher Catherine Lord.
"That has changed perspective on autism both in terms of figuring out who needs services and also the prognosis for people in the mild range," said Lord, director of the University of Michigan's Autism and Communications Disorders Center.
Not all children with autism are mentally retarded, but most need special services.
Recent research has led to important discoveries, including evidence that intensive behavioral training starting as early as infancy can substantially improve symptoms in some autistic children.
Stevie Fuller of Anderson Township participates in the Son-Rise program, an intensive, in-home stimulative program aimed at jump-starting intellectual, emotional and social development. Since Stevie started the program in 1998, he's come a long way, his mother, Nancy Fuller, said.
"From age 3 to 5 he was pretty flat-line in terms of progress," she said. "He didn't gain any speech. He had a few word approximations, like `joo' for juice. At 5, he still wasn't potty-trained. He gave no eye contact whatsoever, and he was mostly exclusive. He wouldn't look up at you for anything.
"The thing I think is the most amazing is that he's attracted to people now, where before, he was only attracted to objects," Fuller said. "If you were to walk into my house, he'd come up to you without being asked."
Dr. Fred Volkmar, a Yale University autism researcher, and colleagues have found that while healthy babies learn social interaction by focusing their gaze on people's eyes, autistic children focus more on mouths.
This could help parents and doctors identify affected children earlier and get them early intervention, Volkmar said.
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