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A multiple handicap affecting a child’s mental, emotional and physical processes by age five and sometimes from birth. Although its causes remain unknown, it is believed to involve some sort of physical damage to the brain or neurological system—or both. Federal laws relating to handicapped children classify autistic children as both “emotionally disturbed” and “health impaired.” Usually uneducable in the conventional classroom setting, the typical autistic child tends to be aloof, disinterested, withdrawn, occasionally impulsive, and irrationally fearful at the sight of new objects. Autistic children respond only to certain sounds or voices and have extreme difficulty speaking and making coordinated body movements. They develop few social skills, cannot play with other children, and have difficulty understanding what is said to them. Among the many typical symptoms are refusal to make eye contact, repetitive behavior such as head banging or hand flapping and a preoccupation with unusual activities or interests. Half a million Americans suffer from the disorder. Massive, combined intervention, including educational and behavioral therapy by doctors, teachers, psychotherapists, social workers and parents and other family members, has produced few encouraging results in helping autistic children improve their abilities to function intellectually, emotionally or socially. A dozen different efforts with hormone therapy sponsored by the National Institutes of Health have also proved ineffective. Although some forms of intensive individual psychosocial and physical therapy have helped some patients, two-thirds of autistic adults cannot live independently.
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