Autism is one of a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism spectrum 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 or 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 and severity vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, children with severe autism have marked impairments or 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 Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life, but then suddenly become withdrawn or aggressive or lose language skills they've already acquired.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 fewer 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 teen years can bring worse 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 savants — they have exceptional skills in a specific area, such as art, math or music.
When to see a doctor
Your doctor may recommend more developmental tests if your child:
Autism has no single, known cause. Given the complexity of the disease, and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there are probably many causes. Both genetics and environment may play a role.
No link between vaccines and autism
Avoiding childhood vaccinations can place your child in danger of catching and spreading 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 your child shows any autism symptoms, he or she will likely be referred to a child psychologist, pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician for a thorough clinical evaluation.
What you can do
Make a list of questions that you want to ask your child's doctor. Don't be afraid to ask questions any time you don't understand something. 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 who treats children with autism. This specialist, working with a team of professionals, can perform a formal evaluation.
Because autism varies widely in severity, making a diagnosis may be difficult. There isn't a specific medical test to determine the disorder. Instead, an autism specialist may:
Signs of autism often appear early in development when there are obvious delays in language skills and social interactions. Diagnosis is usually made before age 3. Early diagnosis and intervention is most helpful and can improve skill and language development.
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.
The goal of treatment is to maximize your child's ability to function by reducing autism symptoms and supporting development and learning. Your doctor can help identify resources in your area. Treatment options may include:
Managing other medical conditions
Teens and young adults with autism may have issues with body changes, increased social awareness and transitions. Your health care provider and community advocacy and service organizations can offer help.
Because autism can't be cured, many parents seek out alternative and complementary therapies, but these treatments have little or no research to support their effectiveness. You could, unintentionally, reinforce negative behaviors. And some alternative treatments can be potentially dangerous.
Talk with your child's doctor about the scientific evidence of any therapy that you're considering for your child. Examples of complementary and alternative therapies include:
Coping and support
Raising a child with autism can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. These suggestions may help:
There's no way to prevent autism. But autism can be treated, and children can improve their language and social skills with treatments.
If your child is diagnosed with autism, talk to experts about creating a treatment strategy. Keep in mind that you may need to try several different treatments before finding the best combination of therapies for your child.
Last Updated: 2012-10-06
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