Family Health|Infants and Toddlers|Kids and Teens
autism|child|Psychiatric and Psychologic|teenager


Last Updated May 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental brain disorder. It affects your social, behavioral, and communication skills. People who have autism start showing signs at an early age. Autism levels vary from person to person. Because of this, doctors often refer to autism as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People who have mild symptoms may be considered “high-functioning.”

What used to be called Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is the most common ASD. It is a form of “high-functioning” autism. Typically, people who have what was formerly known as AS have a normal-to-high IQ. They may exhibit a special skill or area of interest. Their verbal language development is considered normal. However, people who have AS can have trouble using language correctly in social situations. They often have a hard time with nonverbal communication, such as making eye contact, reading facial expressions, and using body gestures. General social skills, such as developing relationships and adjusting to change, also can be affected. People who have AS can learn these skills through behavior and communication therapy.

Symptoms of autism

People with autism can have a range of symptoms. Some are common, and some depend on the severity of the disorder. Your child may:

  • Avoid physical touch or eye contact
  • Not respond to voices or other sounds
  • Not respond to someone calling their name
  • Not talk
  • Not understand hand gestures or body language
  • Rock back and forth, spin, or bang their head
  • Stare at part of an object, such as the wheels of a toy car
  • Fixate on certain topics or things
  • Not pretend or play make-believe games
  • Be concerned with order, routine, or ritual and become upset if it is disturbed or changed
  • Have a flat facial expression and/or use a monotone voice
  • Be unafraid of danger and accidentally cause injuries
  • Not seem interested in playing with others

Approximately 20% of children who have autism develop normally for the first 1 to 2 years of their lives. Then, they experience what doctors call a regression. This means that they lose skills that they had before, such as the ability to talk.

However, some autistic children gain special skills. For example, they may be able to do complex math problems in their heads. Abilities like these are less common.

What causes autism?

Doctors are not sure what causes autism. Some studies suggest that it is genetic (runs in families). Certain health problems or things in your child’s environment may play a role. Kids who are born to older parents have an increased risk of autism. Boys are more likely to have autism than girls. In most cases, the cause of a child’s autism is not known. As doctors continue to study autism, they may learn more about what causes it.

Vaccines do not cause autism. This includes the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Vaccines are an important part of your child’s health. If you have concerns about the safety of vaccines, talk to your doctor.

How is autism diagnosed?

There is no lab test that can detect autism. Talk to your doctor if your child does not behave as expected for their age. If the doctor suspects autism, they may suggest seeing a child psychiatrist or other pediatric specialist. A specialist can observe your child to look for signs of autism.

Some children who have autism also have an intellectual disability. This means that their intellectual abilities function well below average. It causes developmental delays in reading, writing, and math, for example. This can make it hard to diagnose autism. Children with autism do not respond to questions the same way other kids do. An expert can give your child special tests to learn more about your child’s condition.

Can autism be prevented or avoided?

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

Autism treatment

Children do not “outgrow” autism, and there is no cure. Medicine alone cannot treat autism. It can help manage some symptoms, such as aggression or sleeplessness. Research shows that some children benefit from intense behavior and language therapy. The earlier the therapy starts, the better the results. With therapy, your child’s symptoms may improve as they get older. Talk to your doctor about what kind of treatment is best for your child.

Living with autism

People who have autism can live normal, healthy lives. They may see and react to things in different ways. They may have a harder time paying attention. As a parent, you may need to find other ways to teach and connect with your child. Work with the doctor or specialist to improve your child’s lifestyle. This could mean creating routines or habits, so your child feels safe and relaxed. It is important to do this at a young age. It can help your child cope better when they become an adult.

Ask your doctor to recommend a counselor or support group. This can help you, your child, and the whole family.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What can I do to help my child develop language skills?
  • It is hard to feel close to my child when they don’t look at or talk to me. Are there support groups I can join?
  • What is the best way to interact with my child?
  • My child doesn’t sleep well. What can I do to help?
  • Will my child be able to attend a regular school?
  • What are other autism spectrum disorders?
  • Do you have any material I can read to help family, friends, teachers, and other caregivers deal with my child’s autism?
  • Sometimes my child becomes violent. What is the best way to deal with this?
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