Autism is one of a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child's ability to communicate and interact with others.
The number of children diagnosed with autism appears to be rising. It's not clear whether this is due to better detection and reporting of autism, a real increase in the number of cases, or both.
While there is no cure for autism, intensive, early treatment can make a big difference in the lives of many children with the disorder.
Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior. But because autism symptoms vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people.
Some children show signs of autism in early infancy. Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life but then suddenly become withdrawn, become aggressive or lose language skills they've already acquired. Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common autism symptoms:
Young children with autism also have a hard time sharing experiences with others. When read to, for example, they're unlikely to point at pictures in the book. This early-developing social skill is crucial to later language and social development.
As they mature, some children with autism become more engaged with others and show less marked disturbances in behavior. Some, usually those with the least severe problems, eventually may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others, however, continue to have difficulty with language or social skills, and the adolescent years can mean a worsening of behavioral problems.
Most children with autism are slow to gain new knowledge or skills, and some have signs of lower than normal intelligence. Other children with autism have normal to high intelligence. These children learn quickly yet have trouble communicating, applying what they know in everyday life and adjusting in social situations. A small number of children with autism are "autistic savants" and have exceptional skills in a specific area, such as art, math or music.
When to see a doctor
Your doctor may recommend further developmental tests if your child:
Autism has no single, known cause. Given the complexity of the disease, the range of autistic disorders and the fact that no two children with autism are alike, there are likely many causes. These may include:
No link between vaccines and autism
Avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child in danger of catching serious diseases, including whooping cough (pertussis), measles or mumps.
Autism affects children of all races and nationalities, but certain factors increase a child's risk. They include:
Preparing for your appointment
Your child's doctor will look for developmental problems at regular checkups. If he or she shows any autism symptoms, your child will likely be referred to a pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician for a thorough clinical evaluation.
It's a good idea to be well prepared for your child's appointment. Here's some information that may help you get ready.
What you can do
Write down questions that you want to ask your child's doctor. Don't be afraid to ask questions or to speak up when you don't understand something that's said. And if you run out of time, ask to speak with a nurse or physician assistant, or leave a message for the doctor. Questions to ask might include:
What to expect from your child's doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your child's doctor will look for signs of developmental delays at regular checkups. If your child shows some signs of autism, you may be referred to a specialist in treating children with autism. This specialist, working with a team of professionals, can perform a formal evaluation for the disorder.
Because autism varies widely in severity, making a diagnosis may be difficult. There isn't a specific medical test to pinpoint the disorder. Instead, an autism specialist will observe your child and talk to you about how your child's social skills, language skills and behavior have developed and changed over time. To help reach a diagnosis, your child may undergo a number of developmental tests covering speech, language and psychological issues.
Although the signs of autism often appear by 18 months, the diagnosis sometimes isn't made until age 2 or 3, when there may be more obvious delays in language development and social interactions. Early diagnosis is important because early intervention — preferably before age 3 — appears to be the most helpful.
Diagnostic criteria for autism
To be diagnosed with autism, your child must have six or more of the following symptoms and two or more of those symptoms must fall under the social skills category.
Treatments and drugs
No cure exists for autism, and there is no "one-size-fits-all" treatment. The range of home-based and school-based treatments and interventions for autism can be overwhelming.
Your doctor can help identify resources in your area that may work for your child. Treatment options may include:
Managing other medical conditions
Because autism is an incurable disease, many parents seek out alternative therapies. Though some families have reported good results with special diets and other complementary approaches, researchers aren't sure how useful the treatments are. Some of the most common alternative therapies include:
Coping and support
Raising a child with autism can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. These ideas may help:
There's no way to prevent autism. Autism can be treated, and children can have improved language and social skills with treatments. If your child is diagnosed with autism, talk to your child's doctors about creating a treatment strategy for your child. Keep in mind that you may need to try several different treatments before finding the best combination of therapies for your child.
Last Updated: 2010-05-27
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