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.
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:
- Autism Special Needs Checklist: Babies & Preschoolers (Birth to age 5)
- Autism Special Needs Checklist: Big Kids (Ages 6–12)
- Autism Special Needs Checklist: Teens and Young Adults (Ages 13–21)
Autism Checklist: Babies & Preschoolers (Birth to age 5)
When your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, there's a lot to learn. This 7-step checklist can help you find the best path forward.Read More
Autism Special Needs Checklist: Big Kids (ages 6-12)
Having a plan for the future can help your big kid reach his or her full potential. Follow this 8-step checklist to help your child succeed during the elementary school years.Read More
Autism Special Needs Checklist: Teens & Young Adults
As your child moves toward adulthood, learn the tools you need to make the transition as smooth as possible. This 6-step checklist can help.Read More
Delayed Speech or Language Development
Knowing what's "normal" and what's not in speech and language development can help you figure out if you should be concerned or if your child is right on schedule.Read More
Special Education: Getting Help for Your Child
Kids with special needs may quality for services to help with learning. Here is a guide to getting the help your child needs.Read More
Going to a Speech Therapist
You might visit a speech therapist if you're having trouble speaking or understanding others. Find out more in this article for kids.Read More
All kids have worries and doubts. But some have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which their worries compel them to behave in certain ways over and over again. OCD can get better with the right attention and care.Read More
How Can I Help a Classmate With Autism?
Find out what the experts have to say.Read More
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder makes it hard for kids to learn and communicate. Find out more in this article for kids.Read More
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism spectrum disorder can make communicating and interacting with other people difficult. Find out more.Read More
Working with a certified speech-language pathologist can help a child with speech or language difficulties.Read More
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
Some kids may be eligible for individualized education programs in public schools, free of charge. Understanding how to access these services can help you be an effective advocate for your child.Read More
504 Education Plans
If your child has special needs in the classroom, he or she may be eligible for a government-supported learning plan.Read More