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Neurobiological disorder that affects physical, social, and language skills. First described by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940s, the syndrome usually appears before 2 years of age. Autistic infants appear indifferent or averse to affection and physical contact. They may be slow in learning to speak and suffer episodes of rage or panic; they may also appear deaf and display an almost hypnotized fascination with certain objects. Autism is often characterized by rhythmic body movements such as rocking or hand-clapping and by an obsessive desire to prevent change in daily routines. Autistic individuals may be hypersensitive to some stimuli (e.g., high-pitched sounds) and abnormally slow to react to others (e.g., physical pain). The disorder is three to four times more common in males. Though postnatal factors such as lack of parental attention were once blamed, it is now known that autism is the result of abnormalities in the brain structure. About 15–20% of autistic adults live and work independently; high-functioning autistic people may have special abilities based on their unusual ability for visual thinking. See alsosavant syndrome.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on autism, visit Britannica.com.