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What Is Autism?

Kids with autism (also called autism spectrum disorder) have differences in the way their brains develop and process information. They might have language delays or trouble communicating with others, perform certain unusual or repetitive behaviors, or have difficulties learning in school.

No two cases of autism are exactly alike — depending on a child's condition, symptoms can be severe and interfere with everyday tasks or they can be mild and cause few problems. Doctors and scientists call this range of symptoms a "spectrum."

In the past, doctors didn't know a lot about autism. But that's changing. New research has made it easier for doctors to diagnose and begin treating kids earlier than ever before. With early treatment that usually includes speech therapy and behavioral therapy, kids with autism can have the opportunity to reach their best potential.

What Are the Signs of Autism?

Signs of autism are usually recognizable by 2 or 3 years of age. But because they can be hard to notice, it might take longer to fully identify autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that pediatricians look for signs that suggest the possibility of autism at every visit. Formal autism screening can begin as early as 16 months of age.

Signs of autism can include:

  • trouble interacting, playing with, or relating to others
  • having little or brief eye contact with others
  • not pointing to objects to call attention to them
  • unusual or repetitive movements, such as hand flapping, spinning, or tapping
  • delays in developmental milestones or loss of milestones already achieved
  • playing with a toy in a way that seems odd or repetitive
  • not using or understanding language as a child that age typically would
  • not exploring surroundings with curiosity or interest (a child seeming to be in his or her "own world")

Kids who show a pattern of these behaviors should be evaluated by a doctor with expertise in developmental disorders, such as a developmental pediatrician, pediatric neurologist, pediatric psychologist, or psychiatrist. But diagnosing autism can involve lots of other health care professionals, including speech therapists.

Doctors will talk to parents and spend time interacting with the child. They might use parent questionnaires or have a child evaluated to test abilities and behaviors related to learning, communication, and play. A child's levels of development and behavior are then compared with those of other kids the same age.

At this time, there is no brain scan or blood test to diagnose autism. But these tests can be used to rule out other conditions.

What Causes Autism?

Causes of autism are not yet fully understood, but scientists believe that genes and environmental factors are involved. In fact, new research has found that genes play a major role; there's a 30% chance of a child developing autism if a sibling has it.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that autism is passed down from parent to child. Some studies suggest that kids with a genetic risk or predisposition to autism might develop it when they are exposed to something (yet unknown) in the environment.

Other studies have suggested that autism could be caused by viruses, allergies, or vaccines. But none of these theories have been scientifically proven. In fact, the vast majority of scientific studies on vaccines have found no link between vaccines — or any of their ingredients — and autism. 

It's also important to remember that autism is not caused by parenting or bad experiences. Earlier theories that suggested this have been disproved.

How Is Autism Treated?

There's no cure for autism, but early intervention and therapy can help kids develop skills and achieve their best potential. Therapy is tailored to each child's individual needs and may include behavioral, educational, speech, and occupational therapies.

The goal of therapy is to help kids learn how to:

  • be safe and take care of their bodies
  • communicate with peers and caregivers
  • play with others and cooperate with social rules
  • minimize repetitive or aggressive behaviors, like those that interfere with daily activities

Research suggests that a minimum of 25 hours a week of social, behavioral, play, speech, and other developmental therapies can help maximize a child's potential. Sometimes medications are also used to treat certain symptoms, like aggression toward oneself or others, problems of inattention, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and mood swings.

While there's little research to support the use of nontraditional or alternative therapies — such as diet changes; supplements; and music, art, and animal therapies — some families have reported significant benefits from them.

Before Age 3

Before age 3, children receive therapy through their home state's early intervention program. Families work with therapists on an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which outlines the types of therapy to be given and their goals. A team of therapists (which may include behavioral and speech therapists and special education teachers) provides in-home therapy.

The goal of treatment is to help kids get to the point where they can learn in a regular classroom and become as independent as possible in daily life.

After Age 3

Kids ages 3–5 are entitled to free preschool services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Educational and therapeutic programs are offered through local school districts or other educational facilities — either at home or in a classroom. Some areas also offer parent education to help parents with the challenges of raising a child with developmental disabilities.

Once kids reach kindergarten, parents can ask to set up an individualized education plan (IEP) through the local school district. An IEP can include educational as well as behavioral, social, and self-care goals.

How Can I Help My Child?

If your child may have a developmental delay, it's important to get help. Even before a formal diagnosis of autism is made, your child can begin early intervention to address language and other delays.

Unfortunately, treatment can be expensive and often is not reimbursed by insurance companies. But help is out there if you look in the right places — for instance, federally funded grants that cover the costs of autism services or research studies that diagnose, evaluate, and treat kids with autism.

To find out what's available to your child, contact:

  • your doctor or health care system
  • your township or county department
  • health and education departments
  • churches and other charitable organizations 
  • local chapters of autism advocacy groups (like Autism Speaks)
Date reviewed: August 2016