Painting a picture of autism is no easy task.
Ask families familiar with the disorder, and they'll tell you no two cases are alike. Ask a doctor and the picture gets no clearer.
Suffice to say that autism is a range of disorders, most of which have some effect on an individual's communication and social skills.
Science generally accepts autism as being caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. While about 40 percent of those with autism may have an intellectual disability, many autistic individuals are highly intelligent and cope with an array of sensory, hearing or vision problems. Others who fall at the less extreme end of the autism spectrum have successful lives and careers.
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, a tendency toward bizarre repetitive behaviors like hand flapping or rocking, or compulsive arranging of objects in rows or piles also is common. Certain ritualistic personal grooming, cleaning or eating habits also are frequently present.
Others with autism are most greatly affected through their inability to sense emotions or read social cues like a smile or frown. In some cases, those with autism may be affected by extreme sensitivity to touch. But others may exhibit extreme tolerance to pain, heat or cold, as was the case with Robert Wood Jr., an 8-year-old who was missing for five days in a Hanover County Civil War battlefield in October.
Perhaps most disturbing of all behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder, and one seen in as many as 30 percent of all autism cases, is a tendency toward self-injury like eye poking or violent head banging.
Autism's prevalence gives urgency to concerns about public awareness and understanding of the disorder. And it gives urgency to a larger concern over what will happen to these children as they grow into adulthood — and their parents grow old and eventually die.
In the United States, as many as 1 in 80 children have an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, a Virginia Department of Education survey found 11,703 diagnosed cases in Virginia schools, a number up from just 1,521 in 1998.
Complicating matters further, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of people with autism also have an intellectual disability. Often, the associated tic-like behaviors that come with autism spectrum disorder take on a far more painful and disruptive specter when dealing with someone with limited IQ or whose autism is severe enough that he is almost locked inside himself, nonverbal or pained by outside stimulus or touch.