What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Kids with autism spectrum disorder have differences in the way their brains develop and use information. They might have:

  • language delays or trouble communicating
  • learning problems
  • unusual behaviors or interests

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Autism?

Signs of autism can include:

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

No two people with autism act the same. Symptoms can be mild and cause few problems, or more severe and interfere with everyday tasks. This wide range of symptoms is called a "spectrum."

In the past, the labels "Asperger syndrome" and "pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)" were used for some types of autism. That's no longer the case. Now, all degrees of autism spectrum disorder fall under that one diagnosis.

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Public awareness of the signs of autism and new screening tools have made early identification of autism easier. Doctors look for signs and symptoms at every checkup, ask about concerns parents may have, and do a screening test at the 18-month and 2-year visits.

If any concerns are found, doctors will suggest a complete evaluation. This usually involves a team of experts. The team may include:

  • doctors who treat developmental disorders
  • child psychologists who check for learning delays and behavior problems
  • occupational therapists who assess fine motor skills and skills for activities of daily living (like feeding, dressing, and playing)
  • speech therapists who assess communication skills and language skills

There are no brain scans or blood tests to diagnose autism. But tests might be done to rule out other problems with similar symptoms.

What Causes Autism?

No one knows exactly what causes autism. It is likely a mix of things that change the way the brain develops before a baby is born. These include:

  • a person's genes
  • something in the environment, like infections or toxins
  • problems during pregnancy and around the time of birth

Vaccines do not cause autism.

How Is Autism Treated?

The earlier treatment for kids with autism starts, the better. Depending on a child's needs, treatment may include behavior therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and extra help with learning. The goal is to help kids:

  • communicate better
  • play with others and learn social skills
  • lessen repetitive or bad behaviors
  • improve learning
  • be safe and take care of their bodies

Before Age 3

Before age 3, kids get services through their state's early intervention program. Families work with a team of experts on an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan outlines goals and comes up with a treatment plan.

A team of therapists provides in-home therapy to eligible families.

After Age 3

Kids ages 3 to 5 years old with autism who qualify are entitled to free preschool services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Therapy and/or extra learning help is offered through local school districts or other learning centers — either at home or in a classroom.

When kids reach kindergarten age, parents can ask to switch to an individualized education plan (IEP) through the local school district. An IEP can include learning goals along with behavioral, social, and self-care goals.

Sometimes medicines are used to treat symptoms like aggression, hyperactivity and inattention, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, depression, and sleep problems.

There isn't much research to support the use of nontraditional approaches — such as diet changes; supplements; and music, art, and animal therapies. Tell your doctor and other team members about any other therapies you're using or considering so you can discuss the risks and possible benefits.

How Can I Help My Child?

If you think your child may have developmental delays or autism, talk to your doctor. Even before a diagnosis of autism is made, a child can begin early intervention to address language and other delays.

If your child is diagnosed with autism, many resources and support services can help. Your doctor and care team can point you in the right direction.

These age-specific autism checklists also can help guide you. Click a link to learn more:

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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