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You are here: Home » eGM Resources » Health Information & Resources Portal|Home » Autism


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What is Autism?

Autism is a complex biological disorder that generally lasts throughout a person's life. It is called a developmental disability because it starts before age three, in the developmental period, and causes delays or problems with many different ways in which a person develops or grows.

In most cases, autism causes problems with:

  • Communication, both verbal (spoken) andnonverbal (unspoken)
  • Social interactions with other people, bothphysical (such as hugging or holding) andverbal (such as having a conversation)
  • Routines or repetitive behaviors, likerepeating words or actions over and over,obsessively following routines or schedulesfor their actions, or having very specific waysof arranging their belongings

The symptoms of the disorder cut off people with autism from the world around them. Children with autism may not want their mothers to hold them. Adults with autism may not look others in the eye. Some people with autism never learn how to talk. These behaviors not only make life difficult for people who have autism, but also make life hard for their families, their health careproviders, their teachers, and anyone who comes in contact with them.

Why Do Some People Get Autism?

Autism is not a disease that you "get," the same way you can get the flu. Instead, scientists think autism has its beginnings before a person is even born. No one knows the exact cause or causes of autism, but scientists have some theories.

Some of the researchers in the Network on the Neurobiology and Genetics of Autism: Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA), a worldwide research network co-sponsored by the NICHD and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), are focusing their efforts on possible genetic causes of autism. In 2000, scientists in the CPEA Network released the results of two studies that found genes were involved in autism. Additional papers were published in 2001 by CPEA researchers and other NIH-funded scientists as part of an international consortium on genetics research. These results lead researchers to believe that some people could have an error in their genes that makes them more likely to develop autism. The CPEA Network and other NICHD-supported researchers are also looking into other factors that could be involved in autism, in addition to genetics, including neurological, infectious, metabolic, immunologic, and environmental.

How Many People Have Autism?

Currently, the exact number of cases of autism is not known, but estimates range from one-in- 500 cases, to one-in-1,000 cases of autism diagnosed in the U.S. every year.

Who Usually Gets Autism?

Current figures show that autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups. These statistics also show that boys are three-to-four times more likely to be affected by autism than girls are. In addition, if a family has one child with autism, there is a 5-to-10 percent chance that the family will have another child with autism. In contrast, if a family does not have a child with autism, there is only a 0.1-to-0.2 percent chance that the family will have a child with autism.

When Do People Usually Show Signs of Autism?

In most cases, the symptoms of autism are measurable by certain screening tools at 18 months of age. However, parents and experts in autism treatment can usually detect symptoms before this time. In general, a formal diagnosis of autism can be made when a child is two, but is usually made when a child is between two and three, when he or she has a noticeable delay in developing language skills.

Recent studies show that at least 20 percent of children with autism experienced a "regression," as reported by their parents. This means that the children had a mostly normal development, but then had a loss of social or communication skills. To date, however, there is little information about this type of regression, such as the age it seems to start, how severe it is, and what, if anything, triggers it. NICHD researchers are looking into a variety of possible causes for both early onset and regressive autism.

Is There a Link Between Autism and Vaccines?

To date, there has been no conclusive, scientific evidence that any part of a vaccine or any combination of vaccines causes autism. There is also no proof that any material used to make or preserve vaccines plays a role in causing autism.

What is Included in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Category?

Currently, ASD includes:

  • Autistic disorder (sometimes called "classic" autism)
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD)
  • Rett syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS) or atypical autism

Signs of Autism

A doctor should definitely and immediately evaluate a child for autism if he or she:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months of age
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp, etc.) by 12 months of age
  • Does not say single words by 16 months of age
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own (rather than just repeating what someone says to him or her) by 24 months of age
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age

Other "Red Flags"

  • The child does not respond to his/her name.
  • The child cannot explain what he/she wants.
  • Language skills or speech are delayed.
  • The child doesn't follow directions.
  • At times, the child seems to be deaf.
  • The child seems to hear sometimes, but not others.
  • The child doesn't point or wave bye-bye.
  • The child used to say a few words or babble, but now he/she doesn't.
  • The child throws intense or violent tantrums.
  • The child has odd movement patterns.
  • The child is hyperactive, uncooperative, or oppositional.
  • The child doesn't know how to play with toys.
  • The child doesn't smile when smiled at.
  • The child has poor eye contact.
  • The child gets "stuck" on things over and over and can't move on to other things.
  • The child seems to prefer to play alone.
  • The child gets things for him/herself only.
  • The child is very independent for his/her age.
  • The child does things "early" compared to other children.
  • The child seems to be in his/her "own world."
  • The child seems to tune people out.
  • The child is not interested in other children.
  • The child walks on his/her toes.
  • The child shows unusual attachments to toys, objects, or schedules (i.e., always holding a string or having to put socks on before pants).
  • Child spends a lot of time lining things up or putting things in a certain order.


Many families of children and adults with autism are finding new hope from a variety of treatments for autism. The list below does not include all of the possible treatments for autism. If you have a question about treatment, you should talk to a health care professional who specializes in caring for people with autism. Some treatments include:

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

One effective way to prevent problem behaviors typically related to autism. IEPs involve a variety of interventions, including some of those mentioned below, and are designed to help a child or adult with autism to overcome his or her specific problems. Children with autism seem to respond very well to IEPs that are properly designed and systematically put into practice.

Comprehensive Treatment Programs

Encompass a number of different theories about treating autism. These programs range from specific methods of learning, to applied behavior analysis, to reaching certain developmental goals. In general, children need to be in this type of program for 15-40 hours a week, for two years or more, to change their behaviors and prevent problems.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Generally focuses on reducing specific problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Recently, ABA programs have broadened their scope to include what to do before or between episodes of problem behaviors, in addition to what to do during or after these episodes. By showing children or adults with autism how to handle things like a change in schedule, furniture that has been moved, and meeting new people, ABA removes these situations as triggers for problem behaviors.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBS)

An approach that tries to increase positive behaviors, decrease problem behavior, and improve the child’s or adult’s lifestyle. The PBS method looks at the interactions between people with autism, their environment, their behavior, and their learning processes to develop the best lifestyle for them.


Can also be effective in improving the behavior or abilities of a person with autism. In general, these medications are called “psychoactive” because the drugs affect the brain of a person with autism. Medication is often used to deal with a specific behavior, such as reducing self-injurious behavior, which may allow the person with autism to focus on other things, like learning.

Source: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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