Dustin Hoffman's award winning performance in the movie "Rain Man" brought a brain disorder called autism to national attention. But in typical Hollywood fashion "Rain Man" portrayed autism in sensational form. Alongside his extreme social impairment and obsessive behavior, Hoffman's character had extraordinary ability with math and memory.
Although in real life some people with autism do have amazing talents, such cases are rare. The majority have less sensational but no less troubling symptoms that typically appear within the first three years after birth. Affecting approximately two babies per thousand, autism is a neurological condition that continues to baffle scientists.
In most cases, autism affects a child's ability to communicate, form social relationships, and respond normally to their environment. An autistic child might avoid eye contact, shy away from or actively resist being held or touched, seem to withdraw into a shell, and become extremely sensitive to sound, touch, taste, and smell. Other symptoms can include fixating for hours on a particular object and repetitive actions such as rocking or hand flapping. For parents of autistic children, the inability to show or respond to parental affection can be particularly devastating.
Although scientists have not pinpointed what causes autism, some research has focused on the amygdala, an area of the brain's limbic system that helps regulate social and emotional behavior. Some studies have revealed irregularities in the amygdalas of autistic children. There is no cure for autism, but therapies abound from behavioral and developmental approaches to experimental drugs.