1. Headline
  1. Headline
By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/23/2005 1:18:41 PM ET 2005-02-23T18:18:41

Kahlil Russell seems like a normal, charming 7-year-old, but he has autism. He speaks only a few words and can quickly drift away to where no one — not even his parents — can reach him.  

  1. More from TODAY.com
    1. TODAY's Takeaway: Savannah overshares; Billy Crystal brings '700 Sundays' to TV

      Witnesses describe hearing the Mount Everest avalanche, Savannah already overshares and Billy Crystal brings "700 Sundays"...

    2. 'You helped me': After 23 years, Desert Storm veteran thanks pen pals
    3. Alan Thicke: 'I have a better body' than Homer Simpson'
    4. Kids scared of the Easter Bunny? Well, look at him!
    5. 'We are not equipped for this': Tamron, Willie face off against animals

"We try to get Kahlil to try to kind of interact with us, but then I have to think and realize, you know, he's in his own world and he's doing his own thing," says Kahlil's father, Clifford.

Kahlil attends a school for children with the disorder run by the Help Group in Sherman Oaks, Calif. At the school, one can see the range of disabilities the brain disorder can cause — from mild to severe.

What goes on in the brains of these children?

"They see everything. They hear everything. They feel everything," says Dr. Michael Merzenich at the University of California at San Francisco. "But they can't tell anybody. They can't get it out."

Most troubling, experts say, is the alarming increase in the number of cases. A few decades ago, autism was almost unheard of. Now it seems to be exploding. In the past decade the number of school-age children getting treatment skyrocketed 600 percent.

"Parents are going to be needing more and more of these types of facilities with the increasing numbers of kids being identified," says Dr. Barbara Firestone, president of the Help Group.

Why the increase?

Dr. Daniel Geschwind at the University of California Los Angeles says one reason is that doctors are diagnosing it more often.

"People are less reluctant to diagnosis autism, or high-functioning autism, in children. And so, some of it is clearly a diagnostic issue," says Geschwind.

But that's not all. Research so far has cleared childhood vaccines, but there could be other environmental factors.

"This doesn't necessarily mean toxicants," says Geschwind. "It can be anything in the environment that we're exposed to."

To try to find the cause, researchers are scanning the brains of children and adults with autism and looking for genetic factors. They hope that a better understanding of this frightening disorder will help reveal the reasons behind the dramatic increase.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

TODAY's Takeaway
  1. TODAY

    Savannah overshares; Billy Crystal brings ‘700 Sundays’ to TV

    4/18/2014 8:29:08 PM +00:00 2014-04-18T20:29:08
  1. Doomed South Korean ferry’s captain taken into custody

    The captain of the sunken ferry in South Korea was taken into custody Friday and is facing five charges, including criminal negligence.

    4/18/2014 8:35:55 PM +00:00 2014-04-18T20:35:55
  2. Did South Korea ferry’s sharp turn cause it to sink?
  3. Teen ferry survivors comforted in devastated town
  1. Courtesy of Shawn Stock

    'You helped me': After 23 years, Desert Storm veteran thanks pen pals

    4/18/2014 8:51:52 PM +00:00 2014-04-18T20:51:52
  1. Courtesy of Kristen Hazelwood Jo

    Kids scared of the Easter Bunny? Well, look at him!

    4/18/2014 7:18:23 PM +00:00 2014-04-18T19:18:23
  1. This weekend on TODAY: Apps to keep teens from texting and driving

    Janice Lieberman takes a look at three new apps that are designed to keep your teens safe behind the wheel. Also, Ed Weeks from “The Mindy Project," the right way to cook a perfect Easter ham and more.

    4/18/2014 4:41:45 PM +00:00 2014-04-18T16:41:45