Autism | Overview

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What is autism?

Autism is a brain disorder that affects the development of normal social and communication skills. People who have autism have trouble communicating and interacting with other people, starting at an early age.

Signs of autism can vary from person to person. They can also be worse in some people than in others. Some of the more common signs are listed in the Symptoms section. 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. High-functioning autism describes autism with less severe symptoms, while low-functioning autism describes autism with more severe symptoms.

If my child has autism, does it mean that he or she is mentally retarded?

Many children who have 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.

Are there more cases of autism now than there used to be?

More children are being diagnosed with autism. However, it’s not clear if this really means that more children have autism. It may mean that parents, teachers and doctors are better at recognizing the signs of autism.

If I have one child with autism, am I more likely to have another one?

Brothers and sisters of children who have autism have about a 5% chance of developing 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 who have 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's syndrome (AS)?

Asperger's syndrome (AS) is a condition very similar to high-functioning autism. Typically, people who have 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 who have 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 who have AS can often learn how to deal with their difficulties through behavior and communication therapy.

Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 02/14
Created: 04/01

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