Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication. There are restricted and repetitive behaviors. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms can vary from patient to patient.
ASD is usually first diagnosed in childhood with many of the most-obvious signs presenting around 2-3 years old, but some children with autism develop normally until toddlerhood when they stop acquiring or lose previously gained skills. According to the CDC, one in 59 children is estimated to have autism. Autism spectrum disorder is also three to four times more common in boys than in girls, and many girls with ASD exhibit less obvious signs compared to boys. Autism is a lifelong condition. However, many children diagnosed with ASD go on to live independent, productive, and fulfilling lives. The information here focuses primarily on children and adolescents.
Autism differs from person to person in severity and combinations of symptoms. There is a great range of abilities and characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorder — no two children appear or behave the same way. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and often change over time.
Two categories of autism spectrum disorder.
Also, while many people with autism have normal intelligence, many others have mild or significant intellectual delays. Additionally, people with ASD are at greater risk for some medical conditions such as sleep problems, seizures and mental illnesses.
Early diagnosis and treatment are important to reducing the symptoms of autism and improving the quality of life for people with autism and their families. There is no medical test for autism. It is diagnosed based on observing how the child talks and acts in comparison to other children of the same age. Trained professionals typically diagnose autism by talking with the child and asking questions of parents and other caregivers.
Under federal law, any child suspected of having a developmental disorder can get a free evaluation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for developmental disorders at well-child preventive visits before age three.
If you have concerns that your infant or toddler is not developing normally, it is important to bring that concern to your primary care provider. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified possible red flags for autism spectrum disorder in young children, including:
If there is a strong concern that your child is showing possible signs of autism, then a diagnostic evaluation should be performed. This typically involves an interview and play-based testing with your child done by a psychologist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, child psychiatrist or other providers.
Scientists do not clearly understand what causes autism spectrum disorder. Several factors probably contribute to autism, including genes a child is born with or environmental factors. A child is at greater risk of autism if there is a family member with autism. Research has shown that it is not caused by bad parenting, and it is not caused by vaccines.
Having a child with autism affects the whole family. It can be stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Paying attention to the physical and emotional health of the whole family is important. Many national and local advocacy organizations provide information, resources and support to individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families. A few are listed in the Resources section.