What It Is

Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. Autism is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The exact causes of these abnormalities remain unknown, but this is a very active area of research and there are probably a combination of factors that lead to autism.

Genetic factors seem to be important. For example, identical twins are much more likely than fraternal twins or siblings to both have autism. Similarly, language abnormalities are more common in relatives of autistic children. Chromosomal abnormalities and other nervous system (neurological) problems are also more common in families with autism.

The exact number of children with autism is not known. A report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that autism and related disorders are more common than previously thought. It is unclear whether this is due to an increasing rate of the illness or an increased ability to diagnose the illness. Autism affects boys 3 - 4 times more often than girls. Family income, education, and lifestyle do not seem to affect the risk of autism.

Some doctors believe the increased incidence in autism is due to newer definitions of autism. The term "autism" now includes a wider spectrum of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism today may have been thought to simply be odd or strange 30 years ago.

An early, intensive, appropriate treatment program will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Most programs will build on the interests of the child in a highly structured schedule of constructive activities. Visual aids are often helpful. Treatment is most successful when it is geared toward the child's particular needs. An experienced specialist or team should design the program for the individual child.

Symptoms

Different people with autism can have very different symptoms. Health care providers think of autism as a “spectrum” disorder, a group of disorders with similar features. One person may have mild symptoms, while another may have serious symptoms. But they both have an autism spectrum disorder. Currently, the autism spectrum disorder category includes: Autistic disorder (also called “classic” autism), Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (or atypical autism). In some cases, health care providers use a broader term, pervasive developmental disorder, to describe autism. This category includes the autism spectrum disorders above, plus Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett Syndrome.

The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas:

  • Communication- both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling)
  • Social- such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation
  • Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors)- such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways

Treatments & Therapies

There is no cure for ASDs. Therapies and behavioral interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms and can bring about substantial improvement. The ideal treatment plan coordinates therapies and interventions that meet the specific needs of individual children. Most health care professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

Educational/behavioral interventions: Therapists use highly structured and intensive skill-oriented training sessions to help children develop social and language skills, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis. Family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with an ASD often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with a child with an ASD.

Medications: Doctors may prescribe medications for treatment of specific autism-related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems. Seizures can be treated with one or more anticonvulsant drugs. Medication used to treat people with attention deficit disorder can be used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity.

Other therapies: There are a number of controversial therapies or interventions available, but few, if any, are supported by scientific studies. Parents should use caution before adopting any unproven treatments. Although dietary interventions have been helpful in some children, parents should be careful that their child’s nutritional status is carefully followed.




  • The description of this disease is provided courtesy of the NIH, and other sources.
  • The information provided on this web site should NOT be used as a substitute for seeking professional medical diagnosis, treatment or care. You should not rely on any information in these pages to replace consultations with qualified health professionals.