FORT HOOD, Texas -- For nine long months, parents anticipate the birth of a new baby. They buy clothes and diapers, assemble furniture, pick out names and dream about a happy, healthy, bright future for their impending arrival.

However, many parents find themselves facing a very different reality when they discover their child is autistic.

The Centers for Disease Control's latest published study in 2006 estimated one in every 110 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

The CDC's website states, "Autism spectrum disorders, known as ASDs, are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication, and behavior. The symptoms of ASDs typically are present before age 3 years, and often are accompanied by abnormalities in cognitive functioning, learning, attention, and sensory processing."

Symptoms of autism can be minimal or severe, and they can vary dramatically from one child to another.

Autistic children may struggle to maintain or completely avoid eye contact, prefer to play alone, avoid cuddling or touching, have poor speech or communication abilities or not develop speech at all. They may rub surfaces repeatedly, have a heightened or lowered response to pain or display intense tantrums.

Other symptoms of autism may appear to indicate other disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourettes, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which can make an accurate diagnosis difficult.

Studies show autism affects boys more often than girls.

The CDC reported one in every 70 males and one in every 315 females are diagnosed with ASDs by the age of 8. The same report said studies in 2002 and 2006 in sample populations show rates of ASDs diagnoses are on the rise.

"Of 10 sites that collected data for both the 2002 and 2006 surveillance years, nine observed an increase in ASD prevalence," the study said. "The average prevalence of ASDs identified among children aged 8 years increased 57 percent in 10 sites from 2002 to the 2006."

These statistics are certainly shocking, but the good news is doctors are getting better at identifying autism, said Col. (Dr.) Mark Croley, chief of Pediatrics at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.

"You know, 20 or 30 years ago children who may have had autism were just considered different. There was no official diagnosis then. It may have always been there. We've just gotten better at identifying it and categorizing it," he said.

Unfortunately, the cause of autism is still a mystery. Some factors that have been considered are diet, digestive tract changes, mercury poisoning, poor vitamin and mineral absorption, or vaccine sensitivity, Croley said.

"A lot of things have been looked at, but researchers don't really know what causes autism," he said.

Croley stressed the importance of regular well baby check-ups especially if parents are concerned about their child's development.

"When parents come in they are usually most concerned about where their child is on the growth chart, but we're looking for developmental milestones like eye contact and babbling," he said. "Even with infants there may be warning signs."

While there is no cure for autism, there are treatment options for the symptoms Croley said.

"The mainstay treatment (for autism) is behavioral therapy because it reinforces behaviors we want to see and it helps desensitize them," he said. "There are other treatments too, like weight vests and medications for problems sleeping. Some parents also try special diets."

Doctors who suspect autism may ask the parents a series of questions about how they interact with their child, or they may provide a questionnaire designed to help determine if a child should be referred to a specialist for further testing.

Once a child is diagnosed with delayed development they may be referred to the Exceptional Family Member Program, or EFMP, Lisa Schimmels, a Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center EFMP case coordinator said.

"The primary care manager is the first step. Then the family should enroll in EFMP," she said. "The child will most likely then be referred to a developmental pediatrician in the local community for further testing."

Facing an autism diagnosis can be scary, but Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center doctors and support services are here to support and guide families through the process.

If you think your child may have autism or is showing signs of developmental delays talk to your primary care provider or contact Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center's Patient Appointment Service, 254-288-8888, and request a well baby check-up.