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Solving the Autism Mystery

With our 10-month-old son sitting on her lap, my wife Brandy fields a list of standard questions from our pediatrician. How is he eating? How is he sleeping? The bespectacled doctor listens, making notes on her clipboard. Does he respond to his own name? No, Brandy says. The doctor slowly looks up, eyebrows raised, obviously concerned. "Oh, but it's okay," Brandy says. "I think he just ignores me."

The stone-faced statues on Easter Island. The crop circles in rural Swiss wheat fields. Houdini escaping shackles in a water tank.

There are mysteries -- and then there is autism. How can something with such overwhelming public awareness be so inexplicable? You would be hard pressed to find an expectant mom or dad who hasn't heard the "A" word, yet the most well educated and experienced physicians, clinical psychologists and behavioral analysts in the field of autism will tell you they have no clear explanation for its cause. They don't know why boys are four times as likely as girls to be on the spectrum, or why prevalence of autism in children in Minnesota is three times higher than it is in Tennessee.
Perhaps we should start with what we do know: the incidence of autism is increasing dramatically. Approximately 1 in every 91 children ages 3 to 17 was on the autism spectrum in 2007, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Five years earlier, that figure was 1 in 150. Four years before that, it was 1 in 1,000.

With these skyrocketing stats, and a dearth of answers from experts, autism has become a Gen Y boogie monster. As a result, parents are desperate for information, and there's plenty of it, both factual and bogus. Google "autism," and you'll get 18.5 million search results (that's about the same number of results as "premature birth" and "colic" combined). Search the topic in the books section on Amazon, and you'll find 5,700-plus titles including Jenny McCarthy's Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism. Among the book's customer reviews are countless armchair theories for autism's cause: genetics, vaccinations, pesticides, industrial contaminants, and America's increasing reliance on prescription drugs.

Since finding a cause has proved problematic, there is a growing emphasis on diagnosing and treating children as early as possible. James Coplan, M.D., is a physician who is board certified in both developmental-behavioral pediatrics and neurodevelopment disabilities. He is also the author of Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders, a guidebook aimed at making parents expert advocates for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).