Autism is a term first coined by Kanner in 1943 to describe those children who display behaviours that are markedly solitary and insular. It is a condition typified by a need for sameness that is indicative of a rigidity of thought, limited verbal and non-verbal communication, such as a lack of two way conversational skill and the refusal of eye contact, and by a immense discomfort with social interaction.

The degree to which these behaviours are manifested by a child may vary greatly and so, rather than thinking only in terms of a triad of characteristics, the notion of a spectrum of severity is used in diagnosis. The spectrum is so wide in its inclusivity that many famous people have been posthumously diagnosed with the disorder; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Andy Warhol, Jonathon swift, Mozart, Michelangelo, and Thomas Jefferson have all been identified as individuals with possible autistic traits. Autism, clearly, is no barrier to success. Unfortunately, however, those people with the most severe form of the condition are so disabled by autism that they will never lead the fruitful and productive lives that most people strive for. For those children and adults, autism is a debilitating condition where involuntary rapid finger and whole body movements along with self harm become added to the basic characteristics. Those individuals with severe autism are literally "locked" in their own world with little or no skill or desire to communicate with the "outside world."

So, what causes the condition and how can it best be treated?

A small piece of the autistic puzzleUnfortunately there is no consensus on what actually causes autism although there is a strong belief that the cause is organic rather then psychosocial. There is, as yet, no single gene credited with causing autism despite the fact that there is a strong hereditary correlation. Nutrient deficiency, foetal intolerance to maternal antibodies, excessive concentrations of neurotransmitters, and excessive levels of testosterone have all been linked, yet still no conclusive evidence exists to pinpoint the cause and it is certainly possibly that a confluence of problems may be the underlying cause.

Treatment usually aims to reduce the degree of the condition rather than totally curing the individual. In schools and specialist centres an approach tailored to increasing the level of interaction with other people is one of the key strategies, as is the use of high levels of structure, visual queuing, music therapy, sensorial stimulation, and an emphasis on choices. Specialist services, like the Higashi school system, are dedicated to alleviating as many of the symptoms as feasible.

In the main, a diagnosis of autism does not lead to a specific management strategy but rather results in a need for carers, teachers and other professionals to be aware of the needs of the individual child and to select a number of strategies from the available range.

Savant Syndrome.

According to professor Darold Treffert, 1 in 10 of all autistic people are also considered to be savants, individuals with a high degree of excellence in one specific area. Jonathon Lerman is one such person. Jonathan Lerman untitled 2002 charcoal on paperDiagnosed with autism aged 3, Jonathon has had his own art shows and a feature in the New York Times, and his work has been compared to that of George Grosz and Francis Bacon. Unusually for an autistic artist he concentrates on portraiture, and his skewed and disarranged representations of human faces have sold with astonishing speed;  in one show alone Lerman sold 60 charcoal drawings for between $500 and $1200 each, an accomplishment all the more impressive when you consider the fact that  Jonathon Lerman has an iQ of 53. About 50% of those people labelled savant have a dual diagnosis of autism, leading psychologists to research the condition in the hope that a breakthrough in our understanding of autism might occur. The condition is latent in everyone and has been connected to brain activity in the left hemisphere, however the research has been inconclusive and the condition remains a fascinating problem for psychologists.