What is autism?
Autism is a brain disorder. People with autism have trouble communicating and interacting with other people. A child with autism may seem very withdrawn, may not make eye contact with people, may not talk or play the way other children do, or may repeat certain motions or behaviors over and over again.
Signs of autism can vary from person to person. They can also be worse in some people than in others. People can be said to have “low-functioning autism” or “high-functioning autism,” depending upon the severity of their symptoms and the results of an IQ (intelligence) test. Some of the more common signs are listed in the box below.
Common Signs of Autism
What causes autism?
Doctors aren’t sure what causes autism. Some studies have shown that the cause is genetic (runs in families). Certain medical problems or something in your child’s surroundings may also play a role. In many cases, the cause of a child’s autism is never known. Boys are more likely than girls to have autism. As doctors continue to study autism, they may learn more about what causes it.
Can vaccines cause autism?
No. Good research has shown that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccinations (“shots”) like the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Vaccines are an important part of your child’s health. If you have any concerns about the safety of vaccines, talk to your doctor.
How is autism diagnosed?
There is no lab test that can detect autism. Autism is often diagnosed when a baby or toddler doesn’t behave as expected for his or her age. If your doctor thinks your child has autism, he or she will probably suggest that your child see a child psychiatrist or other specialist. The specialist will probably test your child to see if he or she shows signs of autism.
If my child has autism, does it mean that he or she is mentally retarded?
Many children with autism are also mentally retarded, but others are not. It can be hard to test autistic children because they do not respond to questions in the same way other children do. An autism expert can give your child special tests that will tell you more about his or her condition.
Some autistic children have special skills, such as the ability to do complex math problems in their heads. However, abilities like these are very rare.
My baby seemed fine. Why does he or she seem to have autism now?
We don’t know why this happens, but approximately 20% of children with autism seem to develop normally for the first 1 to 2 years. Then, these babies experience what doctors call a regression. This means that they lose abilities that they had before, such as the ability to talk.
Are there more cases of autism now than there used to be?
More children are being diagnosed with autism. However, we’re not sure if this really means that more children have autism. It may mean that parents, teachers and doctors are becoming better at recognizing the signs of autism.
How is autism treated?
Several treatments for autism are available. Research has shown that very intense behavior and language therapy may help some children. There is no medicine that treats autism itself, but medicine may help with some of the symptoms of autism, such as aggressive behavior or sleeplessness. Talk to your doctor about what kind of therapy can help your child.
Children don’t “outgrow” autism, and it can’t be cured. With therapy, some children may improve as they mature. The individual child’s language skills and overall intellectual level may help predict what will happen with the autism.
If I have one child with autism, am I more likely to have another one?
Brothers and sisters of children with autism have about a 5% chance of getting autism themselves. There also seems to be a higher risk (10% to 40%) of another disability, such as a learning disability, in siblings of children with autism.
If you’re thinking about having more children, talk with your doctor about whether it would help you to talk with a genetic counselor.
What is Asperger syndrome (AS)?
Asperger syndrome is very similar to high-functioning autism. In fact, some doctors consider it to be just another form of high-functioning autism. Typically, people with AS have a normal IQ and some may exhibit an exceptional skill or interest in a particular area. While verbal language development is considered normal, people with AS can have trouble using this language correctly in social situations. They may also have difficulty communicating in nonverbal ways such as making eye contact, understanding facial expressions and using body gestures. General social skills such as developing relationships and adjusting to new situations can also be affected. Even so, people with AS can often learn how to deal with their difficulties much like someone would learn the multiplication table.
Revision date: July 4, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD