Autism is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder that manifests itself in marked problems with social relatedness, communication, interest, and behavior. The field of psychiatry has classified it in the DSM as one of the five types of pervasive developmental disorders (or autism spectrum disorders). The etiology and physiological basis for autism are unknown, and the psychiatric criteria for the diagnosis are based on behavioral attributes rather than clinical tests. Neurologists may or may not apply the DSM criteria but will more typically apply neurological criteria in determining a diagnosis of autism. Several now speculate that autism is in fact several distinct conditions that manifest themselves in similar ways rather than a single diagnosis.

Typically, autism spectrum disorders appear during the first three years of life. There are strong indications that the incidence is growing, and it is now estimated that it occurs in as many as 1 in 150 individuals, and is 4 times more prevalent in males than females. See autism epidemic for more information about the epidemiology of the condition.

There are reports that children have recovered from autism to the point that they can fully participate in "mainstream" education and social events, but there are lingering concerns that an absolute cure from autism is impossible since it involves aspects of neurological brain structure determined very early in development.

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