What is Autism?
Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. They include autistic disorder (sometimes referred to as “classic autism”), Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art.
Autism has its roots in early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 12 and 18 months of age. Some infants and toddlers begin develop normally until the second year of life, when they lose skills and develop autism – a pattern called “regression.” Autism Speaks continues to fund research on effective methods for earlier diagnosis, as early intervention with proven behavioral therapies can improve outcomes. Increasing autism awareness is a key aspect of this work and one in which our families and volunteers play an invaluable role. Learn more …
How Common is Autism?
Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence over the last 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.
What Causes Autism?
Not long ago, the answer to this question would have been “we have no idea.” Research is now delivering the answers. First and foremost, we now know that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. Research has identified more than a hundred autism risk genes. In around 15 percent of cases, a specific genetic cause of a person’s autism can be identified. However, most cases involve a complex and variable combination of genetic risk and environmental factors that influence early brain development.
What Does it Mean to Be “On the Spectrum” ?
Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have intellectual disability (IQ less than 70), and many have normal to above average intelligence. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal but can learn to communicate using other means. Autism Speaks’ mission is to improve the lives of all those on the autism spectrum. For some, this means the development and delivery of more effective treatments that can address significant challenges in communication and physical health. For others, it means increasing acceptance, respect and support.
How Can I Tell if My Child has Autism?
Though autism cannot be definitively diagnosed until around 18 to 24 months, research shows that children as young as 8 to 12 months may exhibit early signs. Parents should look for symptoms such as no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months; no babbling or back-and-forth gestures (e.g. pointing) by 12 months; or any loss of babbling, speech or social skills at any age. For more information, please see our Learn the Signs page and the “Developmental Milestones” section of our Video Glossary.
What Should I Do if I Suspect Something is Wrong with My Child?
Don’t wait. Talk to your doctor or contact your state’s Early Intervention Services department about getting your child screened for autism. (For more information, about your child’s rights and public resources, see the Early Intervention section of our 100 Day Tool Kit.) Research has consistently shown that early diagnosis and intervention offer the best chance for improving function and maximizing a child’s progress and outcomes.
What if I Suspect that I Have Autism?
Many persons with Asperger syndrome or other high-functioning forms of autism never received a diagnosis as a child. They may be diagnosed as adults when seeking help for related problems at work or in their social lives. Consider asking your physician for a referral to an appropriate specialist. Professionals qualified to make an adult autism diagnosis include licensed clinical psychologists, neurologists and psychiatrists. Some nurse practitioners, social workers and master’s level psychologists likewise have the expertise to diagnose autism in adults.
How Do I Deal with this Diagnosis?
For adults, an autism diagnosis may bring relief in terms of an explanation for their lifelong struggles. For parents, the first months after learning that their child has a developmental disorder can be emotional, confusing and challenging. For this reason, Autism Speaks has developed the 100 Day Tool Kit, to help families navigate the often-tumultuous first 100 days after a child’s diagnosis. You can download a free copy here.
Excerpts from Autism Speaks frequently asked questions. For more information https://www.autismspeaks.org/