What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is a difference in the way a person's brain develops and uses information. People with autism may have trouble learning in school, communicating, and relating to others.

What's it Like to Have Autism?

People with autism may have trouble:

  • expressing feelings. They may seem uncaring or unfeeling. (This doesn't mean they don't have feelings — it's just harder for them to show their feelings.)
  • understanding the feelings of others. For example, not being able to read facial expressions to tell if someone is mad or sad.
  • reading social cues. This means they might stand too close when they're talking to you or can't tell when a chat is over.
  • handling sensory information. Loud noises, bright lights, or busy hallways at school may bother them.
  • handling a new routine, such as sitting in a different seat or having a substitute teacher

People with autism also may move their bodies in unusual ways, like flapping their hands. They may repeat favorite lines from movies of TV shows. Sometimes they get super-focused on a single topic or hobby. No two people with autism act the same.

What Causes Autism?

People are born with autism, but no one knows exactly what causes it. It probably has something to do with DNA — the genes passed down from your parents — and other things, like infections or toxins that change the way the brain develops. Problems during pregnancy and around the time of birth raise the chance of getting autism.

Vaccines do not cause autism.

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

Doctors check babies and little kids for signs of autism at each checkup visit. A parent may think that something is wrong and tell the doctor. Maybe the child is old enough to speak but doesn't. Or a kid doesn't seem interested in people or plays in unusual ways.

If the doctor suspects autism, a team of experts (which may include doctors, a psychologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and a special education teacher) will evaluate a child.

How Is Autism Treated?

There is no cure for autism, but treatment can make a big difference. The sooner treatment starts, the better. With therapy, people with autism learn language, improve in school, and build social skills. A treatment program might include:

  • speech therapy to help with talking and language skills
  • occupational therapy to help with everyday tasks, like dressing and playing
  • behavioral therapy to help improve behavior
  • social skills training to help with relating to others
  • medicine to help with things like sleep, paying attention, and hyperactivity

How Can I Help a Friend With Autism?

It can be hard for people with autism to make friends. Because they seem different, people with autism may be teased, bullied, or left out.

Even though a friend with autism might see the world in a different way, try to find things you have in common — like school or special hobbies. Be patient and kind, and involve your friend when you can. If someone teases or bullies your friend, stand up for him or her, and tell an adult.

Other ways you can help a friend with autism:

  • speak clearly and explain things your friend doesn't understand
  • avoid situations that might make your friend feel uncomfortable
  • help your friend make good choices
  • treat your friend with respect
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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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