Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

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What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects the way the brain works and includes a range of social and behavioral disabilities. ASD is a "spectrum disorder" because the condition varies from very mild to severe.

People with ASD have problems with social interaction and communication. They also have repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities. About one-third have an intellectual disability.

Also called: autism, Asperger syndrome, Asperger's disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, PDD-NOS

How is autism spectrum disorder diagnosed?

Doctors and psychologists use behavioral tests to make a diagnosis. Doctors also ask parents to describe unusual behaviors they observe in their child, such as not smiling or babbling, not making eye contact, or not responding to his name.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says all children should be screened for autism at their 18-month and 24-month doctor visits.

Parents can also request an assessment if they’re concerned about their child. Find out what to do if you think your child has autism.

What about mild autism, like Asperger's and PDD-NOS?

The way psychiatrists diagnose autism has changed. Doctors and therapists no longer use the term "Asperger's disorder"or "pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified" (PDD-NOS) to describe milder forms of autism. Instead, all children with autism – including children with less severe autism – are now simply diagnosed with ASD.

Although a person with a previous diagnosis of Asperger's or PDD-NOS may continue to refer to it that way with a doctor or therapist, over time the terms will disappear from use.

How many children have autism spectrum disorder?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in 68 children. It's four to five times more common in boys than in girls.

What are the signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder?

A child with autism spectrum disorder has poor social skills, limited communication skills, and repetitive interests, activities, or behaviors. Possible warning signs may appear when the child is around 12 to 24 months old and include:

  • Not reciprocating sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • Not babbling by 12 months
  • Not reciprocating gestures (like waving) around 12 months
  • Losing the ability to babble, speak, or develop social skills at any age
  • Difficulty using or understanding nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, body postures, and gestures
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Failure to develop relationships with other children
  • Inability to share interests or achievements with others, such as not sharing or pointing out objects of interest
  • Inability to interact with others or express feelings
  • Language delay or an inability to speak
  • Inability to start or sustain a conversation
  • Repetitive or peculiar use of language
  • Lack of make-believe play or play that imitates social interaction
  • Obsessive interests
  • Upset by minor changes
  • Fixation on routines or rituals
  • Repetitive motions, such as hand- or finger-flapping or twisting, rocking, or spinning in circles
  • Preoccupation with parts of objects
  • Unusual reactions to the way things taste, look, smell, or feel
  • Impaired gross or fine motor skills, such as difficulty running or holding a crayon

What causes autism spectrum disorder?

No one knows exactly what causes autism spectrum disorder. Experts think ASD is a genetic condition that develops during early pregnancy and has multiple causes. In addition to genes, other factors like having older parents, being male, and being exposed to environmental toxins may play a role.

Much research focuses on the genes that affect brain development and on neurotransmission (the way brain cells communicate), but experts think certain medical conditions may be related to ASD. Children with fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, phenylketonuria, fetal alcohol syndrome, Rett syndrome, Angelman syndrome, and Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome are more likely to have autism. It isn't yet clear how directly these conditions are related to ASD.

Some parents worry that common childhood vaccines, such as the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR), could cause autism. Many large studies have not found any link between autism and vaccines. According to the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the CDC, there's no evidence that vaccines cause autism.

How is autism spectrum disorder treated?

Treatment varies depending on the severity of the condition. Although there's no cure for autism, the sooner a child begins treatment, the better the outcome will be.

A team of people may help the child and family, including the child's doctor, teacher, psychologist, and speech or occupational therapist.

Treatment may include:

Behavioral therapy: Helps a child understand his environment and behave appropriately. Applied Behavior Analysis is the most studied and well-known behavioral therapy for children with ASD.

Social skills training: Teaches social skills for interacting successfully with others.

Occupational and sensory integration therapy: Helps the child cope with sensory issues, develop learning and play skills, and learn self-care.

Physical therapy: Helps the child improve coordination and motor skills such as sitting, walking, and running.

Speech and language therapy: Improves the child's speech and ability to talk with others.

Family education: Teaches behavioral techniques for parents to use at home and builds support for parents, siblings, and children with ASD.

Medication: No medicine cures autism, but sometimes children with ASD also have sleep problems, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), seizures, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other behavioral problems that require medication. Treating these conditions can ease symptoms of autism. Sometimes other drugs, like antipsychotics, may be prescribed to alleviate aggressive behavior or stop the child from hurting himself.

Learn more about autism spectrum disorder

Read our autism overview to find out more about parenting and advocating for a child with autism.

Autism is a leading advocacy organization that funds research and helps support families of children with autism.

Autism Science Foundation funds research and promotes public awareness about autism spectrum disorder.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an autism resource page with the latest news about autism, resources for families, training materials, and online courses.

The CDC's autism information section provides overviews of screening and treatment along with statistics and federal research on autism.

Our glossary of key terms explains many of the medical terms, treatments, and available services you should know about.

Get support for autism spectrum disorder

Swap stories, tips, and advice with other parents in these our site Community groups:

Watch the video: Autism Spectrum Disorder Presentation (November 2022).

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