Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.

Autism is a highly variable, neurodevelopmental disorder whose symptoms first appear during infancy or childhood, and generally follows a steady course without remission People with autism may be severely impaired in some respects but average, or even superior, in others. Overt symptoms gradually begin after the age of six months, become established by age two or three years, and tend to continue through adulthood, although often in more muted form. It is distinguished by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction, impairments in communication, and repetitive behavior. Other aspects, such as atypical eating, are also common but are not essential for diagnosis. Individual symptoms of autism occur in the general population and appear not to associate highly, without a sharp line separating pathologically severe from common traits.


The exact cause of ASD isn’t known. It’s likely that a number of factors lead to ASD. Research shows that genes may be involved since ASD runs in some families. Certain medicines taken during pregnancy may also lead to ASD in the child.

Other causes have been suspected, but not proven. Some scientists believe that damage to a part of the brain, called the amygdala, may be involved. Others are looking at whether a virus may trigger symptoms.

Some parents have heard that vaccines may cause ASD. But studies have found no link between vaccines and ASD. All expert medical and government groups state that there is no link between vaccines and ASD.

The increase in children with ASD may be due to better diagnoses and newer definitions of ASD. Autism spectrum disorder now includes syndromes that used to be regarded as separate disorders:

• Autistic disorder

• Asperger syndrome

• Childhood disintegrative disorder

• Pervasive developmental disorder


There are many different combinations of symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The severity of ASD can also vary from person to person. Most symptoms will appear before 3 years of age with most showing between 18 to 24 months.

General developmental problems include:

•Problems with social skills

•Problems with communication

•Repetitive behaviors or unusual activities

•Problems with how the brain receives and responds to sensations around them (processing sensory information)


ASD can cause a wide range of behaviors such as:

•No eye contact

•No response to name

•Not imitating others

•Little or no speaking

•Wants to play alone

•Little interaction or listening to others


•Self-destructive behavior


•Tantrums—can be with little or no prodding

•Use of language in unusual ways

•Repetitive behaviors—may spend hours with a single activity over and over again such as rocking or flapping a hand

•Stare at certain objects for a long time

•Overreaction to small changes in their environment

•Sensitivity to sound, smell, taste, sights, and touch

•Feel pain from a light touch but ignore more severe pain

•The experience sounds as colors and touches as sounds


The most effective treatments available today are applied behavioral analysis (ABA), occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and pharmacological therapy. The treatment works to minimize the impact of the core features and associated deficits of ASD and to maximize functional independence and quality of life.


Exams and Tests

All children should have routine exams done by their pediatrician. More tests may be needed if the health care provider or parents are concerned. This is true if a child doesn’t meet any of these language milestones:

• Babbling by 12 months

• Gesturing (pointing, waving bye-bye) by 12 months

• Saying single words by 16 months

• Saying two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months (not just echoing)

• Losing any language or social skills at any age

These children might need a hearing test, blood lead test, and screening test for ASD.

A provider experienced in diagnosing and treating ASD should see the child to make the actual diagnosis. Because there isn’t a blood test for ASD, diagnosis is often based on guidelines from a medical book titled Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

An evaluation of ASD often includes a complete physical and nervous system (neurologic) exam. Tests may be done to see if there is a problem with genes or the body’s metabolism. Metabolism is the body’s physical and chemical processes.

ASD includes a broad spectrum of symptoms. So, a single, brief evaluation can’t tell a child’s true abilities. It’s best to have a team of specialists to evaluate the child. They might evaluate:

• Communication

• Language

• Motor skills

• Speech

• Success at school

• Thinking abilities

Some parents don’t want to have their child diagnosed because they’re afraid the child will be labeled. But without a diagnosis, their child may not get the needed treatment and services.