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What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is group of complex disorders that affect brain development. ASD is typically associated with difficulties in the following areas:

  • social communication
  • social interaction
  • restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities

Autism can also be associated with intellectual disabilities, delay or absence of language development, trouble with motor coordination and/or attention, and physical health issues.

More about autism

ASD occurs during the early brain developmental stages. However, the behavioral signs of autism surface between the ages of two or three. Individuals with ASD have difficulties with social interaction as well as problems with interpreting and using non-verbal and verbal communication in social contexts. Individuals with ASD also have at least two of the following behavioral difficulties:

  • inflexible interests
  • insistence on sameness in environment or routine
  • repetitive motor and sensory behaviors
  • increased or decreased reactions to sensory stimuli

The severity of these behaviors typically ranges from mild to severe and results in functional impairments. These impairments range from requiring some supports to requiring very intense supports. Given that autism varies widely in its symptoms, severity and functional impairment, some individuals can have their symptoms go unrecognized.

How common is autism?

  • ASD affects 1 in 68 children
  • It affects 1 in 42 boys
  • It affects 1 in 189 girls
  • Boys are nearly 5 times more likely to have ASD than girls
  • Government autism statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years.

What causes autism?

Several decades of scientific evidence supports a strong genetic component to ASD. However, at present, specific genetic causes can only be identified in 10-20% of cases. These cases include specific genetic syndromes associated with ASD and rare changes in the genetic code. The identification of genetic contributions to ASD is likely to increase in the future as technologies for identifying very small genetic changes and linking them to ASD improve. The only other well-established risk factors for ASD are advanced paternal age and low birth weight/prematurity.

How is autism diagnosed?

There are no biological tests to determine autism. However, specifically trained physicians, psychologists and speech language pathologists can do testing. This testing can capture autism-specific behavioral observations. Parent interviews also are helpful in diagnosing autism. Parents are usually the first to notice signs of unusual behavior and are encouraged to trust their instincts and seek out a doctor to complete a screening evaluation. From there, the doctor can refer the child to the appropriate specialist.

What are the signs of autism?

Autism signs range in severity from mild to disabling. Every child is different. However, the following are considered to be red flags that indicate your child is at risk for autism. If your child shows any of these signs, please do not hesitate to contact a physician and ask for an evaluation:

  • Inconsistent or absent responding when the child’s name is called
  • No big smiles or warm, joyful expressions by six months or after
  • No back-and-forth sharing of smiles, sounds and other facial expressions by nine months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as showing, pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

How is autism treated?

Autism is usually a life-long condition. Both children and adults with autism benefit from behavioral interventions or therapies that can reduce the symptoms and increase skills and abilities. Every child and adult with autism is unique. For this reason, the treatment plan is individualized to meet specific needs. It is best to begin interventions as soon as possible, so the benefits of therapy can continue on throughout the course of life.

Many people with autism often have additional medical conditions such as gastrointestinal distress, seizures and sleep disturbances. Interventions for treatment can involve behavioral treatments, medications or both. Early intensive behavioral treatments involve the child’s entire family, who works with a team of professionals. Sometimes during early intensive behavioral treatments, specialists will provide at-home services. As the child ages and develops, treatment may be modified to cater to the child’s specific needs. During adolescence, children benefit from transition services that promote maturing and independence into adulthood. The focus at that point is on employment opportunities and job skill training.

What is the outlook for those with autism?

In many cases, the symptoms of autism become less pronounced as a child gets older. Parents of children with autism should be flexible and ready to adjust treatment as needed for the child. Some people with autism go on to live typical lives, but often continue needing services and support as they age. Research in the field of ASD includes studies regarding early detection, prevention, causes, diagnosis and treatment.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 7/20/2014...#8855