Autism is a spectrum of complex brain disorders. The disorders result in social, behavioral, and communication problems. Other conditions that are part of this spectrum include
and pervasive developmental disorder.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that problems in brain development cause autism. Scientists are searching for answers about what causes these development problems. Studies suggest: Autism seems to run in some families. Several genes may be involved.Problems during pregnancy or delivery may interfere with normal brain development.Something in the environment that a child is exposed to may be a factor.
Factors that increase the risk of developing autism include: Sex: maleFamily history: siblings of a child with autism are at higher riskHaving parents who are olderProblems during pregnancy or delivery
Epilepsy—especially when diagnosed under age 2 years
A number of other conditions are related to autism, although the relationship between them is not clear:
NeurofibromatosisTuberous sclerosisFragile X syndromePhenylketonuria (PKU)Möbius syndromeHerpes
encephalitisCytomegalovirusFetal alcohol syndromeAngelman syndromeRett syndromeSmith-Lemli-OpitzInfantile spasms
The Conditions Above Primarily Affect the Central Nervous System
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Autism usually first appears during early childhood between 2-6 years old. The severity of symptoms varies. Behaviors and abilities may differ from day to day. Symptoms may decrease as the child grows older. Children with autism may have a combination of abnormal behaviors.
Symptoms include: Avoiding social contactHaving problems with language such as loss of languageUsing words incorrectlyCommunicating with motions instead of wordsAvoiding eye contactHaving trouble with nonverbal communicationLacking interest in normal activities for that ageSpending a lot of time aloneNot playing imaginativelyNot starting pretend gamesNot imitating othersHaving sensitivity to sound, smell, taste, sights, and touchReacting to stimulation in an abnormal wayNot reacting to smilesDelayed motor skill developmentBeing hyperactiveBeing passiveHaving tantrumsBeing single-mindedBeing aggressiveHurting selfRepetitive movement, such as rocking or flapping a handResisting changeForming unusual attachments to objectsSniffing or licking of toysNot understanding other peoples' feelings and needs
Being a picky eater
Having gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea, constipation, or frequent abdominal pain
Some people with autism suffer from other disorders as well, including: SeizuresIntellectual disabilityGenetic disorders, such as fragile X syndrome
Doctors who specialize in autism will observe the child's behavior, social contacts, and communication abilities. They will evaluate mental and social development. Parents will be asked about the child's behavior. Some doctors ask parents to bring in videos of the child at home.
Tests may include: Neuropsychological testsQuestionnaires and observation schedulesIntelligence tests
Medical tests to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms may include: Blood testsUrine testsDNA testing
may also be done to record brain activity.
There is no cure for autism. The severity of symptoms may decrease over the years. Children with autism and their families may benefit from early intervention. Children aged 18-30 months who had high-intensity intervention showed improvements in their IQ, language, and behavior.
Children with autism respond well to a structured, expected schedule. Many children with autism learn to cope with their disabilities. Most need assistance and support throughout their lives. Others are able to work and live independently when they grow up.
Children with autism can benefit from:
Programs that meet the child's special needs improve the odds of learning. Children with autism may have trouble with assignments, concentration, and
anxiety. Teachers who understand the condition can work with the child's abilities. Programs should use the child's interests. Some children do better in a small-group setting. Others do well in regular classrooms with special support. Vocational training can help prepare young adults for a job.
Speech, physical, and occupational therapies may improve speech and activities. Children with autism need help developing social skills. Mental health professionals can help a family cope with caring for a child with autism. Counselors help parents learn how to manage behaviors.
ABA is a type of behavior program. It can be used in school, in a therapy setting, and at home. There are a number of different kinds of ABA programs. Talk to your child's doctor about which one might be helpful for your child.
There are no drugs to treat autism. Some drugs are used to help manage symptoms.
can also help treat obsessive and aggressive behaviors. Your child's doctor may use other medicines to help control other disruptive behaviors.
There are other treatments available. These include dietary changes and alternative therapies. Talk with your child's doctor first to see if any of these would be helpful for your child.
There are no guidelines to prevent autism. The cause is unknown. Scientists are searching for its underlying causes.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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http://support.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_course. Accessed May 14, 2013.
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Updated May 7, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.
Autism spectrum disorders. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated May 6, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
Updated August 7, 2012. Accessed May 14, 2013.
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Updated May 14, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2013.
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Last reviewed March 2014 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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