Autism is a complex developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, though it is some times diagnosed much later. It affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. Autism is a spectrum that encompasses a wide continuum of behavior. Core features include impaired social interactions, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. Symptoms may vary from quite mild to quite severe. Mild autism is known as Asberger's syndrome.

Alternative Names

Autistic disorder/autism spectrum; Infantile autism; Autistic-like/autistic tendencies; High-functioning autism; Low-functioning autism; Pervasive developmental delay

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Autism is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and neurochemistry in the brain. The exact causes of these abnormalities remain unknown, but this is a very active area of research. In the past, autism was thought to be a mental illness caused by bad parenting. No scientific evidence supports this idea, which has since been rejected. Genetic factors seem to be important. Language and cognitive abnormalities are more common in relatives of autistic children. Chromosomal abnormalities and other neurological problems are also more common in families with autism. In the general population, autism affects up to 0.2% of children, but the risk of a couple having a second autistic child increases more than 50 times -- to 10-20%. An identical twin is far more likely to also have autism than a fraternal twin or another sibling would be -- all of these facts suggest a strong genetic influence on the condition. Autism affects boys 3 to 4 times more often than girls. Family income, education, and lifestyle do not seem to affect the risk of autism. Some parents be concerned that the MMR vaccine that children receive at 1 year of age may cause autism. This theory was based on the fact that the incidence of autism has increased steadily since around the same time MMR vaccination began and on the fact that children with the regressive form of autism tend to regress at around the time the MMR vaccine is given. Several major studies have found no connection between the vaccine and autism, however, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has officially stated there does not appear to be a causal link. Some doctors attribute the increased incidence in autism to our 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.

Signs and tests

Routine developmental screening should be performed for all children at all well-child visits to their pediatrician. Further evaluation is warranted if there is concern on the part of the clinician or the parents. This is particularly true whenever a child fails to meet any of the following language milestones:

  • Babbling by 12 months
  • Gesturing (pointing, waving bye-bye) by 12 months
  • Single words by 16 months
  • Two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months (not just echoing)
  • Loss of any language or social skills at any age.
  • These children might receive an audiologic evaluation, a blood lead test, and a screening test for autism such as the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) or the Autism Screening Questionnaire. A clinician experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of autism is usually necessary for the actual diagnosis. Because there is no biological test for autism, the diagnosis will often be based on specific criteria laid out as A, B, and C in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV as follows: Diagnostic Criteria for Autistic Disorder A. A total of six or more items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1) and one each from (2) and (3): :
  • Qualitative impairment in social interaction, manifest by at least two of the following:
  • Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors, such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures and gestures, to regulate social interaction
  • Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • Lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest)
  • Lack of social or emotional reciprocity
  • Qualitative impairment in communication, as manifest by at least one of the following:
  • Delay in, or total lack of, the development of spoken language (not accompanied by an attempt to compensate through alternative modes of communication such as gesture or mime)
  • In individuals with adequate speech, marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language, or idiosyncratic languag
  • Lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe, or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level
  • Restrictive repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:
  • Encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus
  • Apparently inflexible adherence to specific nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • Stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)
  • Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.
  • B. Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years:
  • Social interaction
  • Language as used in social communication
  • Symbolic or imaginative play
  • C. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett’s disorder or childhood disintegrative disorder. The other pervasive developmental disorders include Asperger’s syndrome , Rett syndrome , childhood disintegrative disorder , pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), or atypical autism. The diagnostic evaluation of autism will often include a complete physical and neurologic examination, as well as the use of a specific diagnostic instrument such as the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale, the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Screening Test-Stage 3, the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), or the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic. Children with known or suspected autism will often have genetic testing (looking for chromosome abnormalities) and perhaps metabolic testing. Because autism encompasses such a broad spectrum, a brief observation in a single setting cannot predict an individual's true abilities. Ideally, a multidisciplinary team will evaluate the child. This evaluation might include a comprehensive speech-language-communication evaluation, a cognitive and adaptive behavior evaluation, a sensorimotor and occupational therapy evaluation, and neuropsychological, behavioral and academic assessments. Sometimes people are reluctant to make the diagnosis of autism because of concerns about labeling the child. Although pigeonholing in a way that suggests limits is inappropriate due to the wide range of autistic spectrum conditions, failure to make a diagnosis can lead to failure to get the treatment and services the child needs.


    Intensive, appropriate early intervention greatly improves the outcome 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 geared toward the individual's particular needs. An experienced specialist or team should design the individualized program. A variety of effective therapies are available, including auditory integration training, applied behavior analysis, medications, music therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, sensory integration, speech/language therapy and vision therapy. One very successful educational program is called the Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH). Beware that there are some widely publicized treatments for autism which do not have scientific support; there are often reports of "miracle cures" which do not live up to expectations when attempted. If your child has this condition, it may be helpful to talk with other parents of autistic children and with autism specialists and also to follow the progress of research in this area, which is rapidly developing.

    Support groups

    For organizations that can provide additional information and help on autism, see autism - resources .

    Expectations (prognosis)

    Autism remains a challenging condition for individuals and their families, but the prognosis today is much better than it was a generation ago. At that time, most people with autism were placed in institutions. Today, with appropriate therapy, many of the symptoms of autism can be improved, though most people will have some symptoms throughout their lives. Most people with autism are able to live with their families or in the community. Autism varies from quite mild to quite severe. The prognosis for individuals depends on the degree of their disabilities and on the level of therapy they receive.


    Autism can be associated with other disorders that affect the functioning of the brain, such as tuberous sclerosis , mental retardation , or fragile X syndrome . Up to 30% of people with autism will develop seizures. The stresses that autism places on individuals and their families can also lead to social and psychological complications for all involved. However, some autistic individuals have spectacular talents in particular areas ("autistic savants") such as art or mathematics.

    Calling your health care provider

    Parents usually suspect autism long before a diagnosis is made. Call your health care provider with any concerns about autism or if you are concerned that your child is not developing normally.

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