It has been just 50 years since the syndrome of autism was named and described by Leo Kanner. In 1943, he wrote about a small group of children in his child psychiatric practice who shared clinical characteristics of extreme social isolation, severe language abnormalities, and unusual responses to their environment. Since that time, many earlier concepts have given way to a newer, biologically based understanding of autism as a developmental disability that has an underlying neurologic basis. An expanding body of research has revealed insights into the broad clinical range of autism, the possible nature of the underlying defects, and useful approaches to helping children who have the disorder.

Autism also has become part of the public consciousness. Television talk shows frequently feature autism-related topics, and autobiographies by adults who have autism have become best sellers (see Grandin and Williams on the Resources list). Perhaps the event that most solidified autism as a subject of popular interest was Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, a young adult who had high functioning autism, in Barry Levinson's 1988 film Rain Man.

Once considered to be encountered only rarely in practice, autism now is thought to be part of a spectrum of related conditions that are much more common than previously thought.

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