Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

Mystery of Autism Begins With Deciding What It Is

DEAR ABBY: I just finished reading your June 9 column and am shocked at what I read. Your response regarding autism was way off base. You said, "Autism is a mental health disorder ... some people consider ... to be shameful."

Autism is a neurological disorder, NOT a mental health disorder. Families who have a child with autism have many challenges ahead of them as they try to bring normalcy to their child's life and to their family. I am very surprised that you got this one wrong! Autism is reaching epidemic proportions. These families need support, not misprints. -- MELISSA IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

DEAR MELISSA: My thanks to you -- and the many other readers -- who wrote to correct me. After reading the letters and e-mail that came in, I spoke with William Barbaresi, M.D., the chair of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and co-director of the Mayo Clinic-Dana Child Development and Learning Disorders Program in Rochester, Minn., who told me that autism is often considered a mental health disorder because it affects behavior, cognitive ability and social skills. However, it is genetically predetermined -- biologically based.

Experts clearly agree that autism is a neurologically based condition. The current criteria used to diagnose autism are contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association. However, this does not mean that autism is a "mental illness." Autism is most accurately described as a "neurodevelopmental disorder."

While there is no cure for autism, intervention and treatments are available. And for the most up-to-date information on effective therapies, interested parties should read "Autism: A Review of the State of the Science for Primary Health Care Clinicians" by going to � HYPERLINK "http://www.archpediatrics.com" ��www.archpediatrics.com� and searching for "autism."