Autism FAQs

What is autism spectrum disorder?

The autism spectrum disorder—or autism—is a condition that keeps a child from learning how to interact with the world around her. It can get in the way of a child’s ability to speak or can keep him from making sense of the social cues we use to get along with others. It can make him act in strange ways. For example, he might repeat words or make patterns with his hands, over and over for hours. She might focus on one object, such as a radiator.

A child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a problem in three broad areas: communication, social interaction and behavior. Those problems can be mild or severe, or they can be worse in one area but not in the other two.

There is no one symptom that proves a person has autism. Each person’s mixture of issues in the three developmental areas is unique. The strength of those problems can be measured from mild to severe, or anything in between. This is why autism is called a spectrum disorder.

How many people have it?

There is no exact count, but there may be between 1 million and 1.5 million people with autism spectrum disorder in the United States. It is the fastest growing developmental disability in the country.

How do you get it?

Scientists do not know exactly what causes autism, but they know it most often starts in the first months of life, maybe even before birth. Something goes wrong in the development of a child’s brain, but parents or teachers might not notice it for some years.

One cause might be a combination of a gene the child inherited mixed with something toxic in the environment, even before birth.

About 15 percent of children with ASD have changes in their genes called mutations. There are more than 100 genes or gene changes that can change the way a child’s brain grows. These changes put the children at risk.

Here’s how that works: As the unborn baby develops, altered genes might not cause any problem until something else happens. That something could be a virus, a very low birth weight, the mother’s poor health or certain birth problems. The baby’s brain may stop developing the way it should. When something keeps a person from learning and growing the way he should, it is called a developmental disorder. Autism is such a disorder.

Because of a shocking number of children diagnosed with autism in recent years, a lot of money has been spent on research. That research has found some things that do not cause it.

You do not get autism from:

  • Childhood vaccinations. Nineteen carefully conducted studies of immunized children did not find a link to autism.
  • Poor parenting. Parents are not to blame.
  • Another person. You cannot get it by being with someone who has autism.

Who gets it?

Sisters and brothers of children with autism are more likely to get it than others. That might be because they share many of the same genes. Boys are far more likely to get it than girls.

Can it be treated or cured?

It cannot be cured, but there are many ways a person with autism can be taught to deal with the world by developing strengths to beat weaknesses. Some people with autism will need a great deal of help. Others will not.

There are drugs to help a child control his actions and calm his fears. There are teaching aids, behavioral aids, even cell phone apps specially designed for people with autism to help them learn, communicate and participate as best they can in the family, classroom and community.

Parents of children with ASD need special training in ways they can help their child at home and at school. With support from experts in the health and teaching communities, they will learn how to support their child and steer the complex world of benefits, services and resources that can help the child grow.

How is autism diagnosed?

Autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed by a doctor or teacher with special training in child growth and behavior. It might be your child’s doctor, neurologist, psychologist or psychiatrist.

There is no blood test, MRI or X-ray for autism.

The doctor will ask many questions about the mother’s own health history and the child’s. Details about the mother’s pregnancy and the child’s birth are both important to share with the doctor.

The doctor will want to watch the child for a while to see how she interacts with a stranger, with toys and other objects around her. He will also check for unusual behavior, including indications of fear, or sounds the child makes, over and over.

The doctor will also ask the parents, teachers and the child to describe the child’s strengths and challenges. Does the child make eye contact? Does she read at grade level? Is he afraid of certain noise?

With all of this information, the doctor will make a diagnosis that matches the characteristics of a point on the autism spectrum. Or he might decide to test the child for something else.

The diagnosis will describe where the child falls on the spectrum in each of the major categories – social interaction and communication, medical problems, intellectual and repetitive behaviors.

What can be done to help a child with autism?

Every situation is different, but a child on the autism spectrum can be helped by the combined efforts of parents, the health care community, the school district and the state.

With an early start, a child with autism can make great strides. People dedicated to working with children with autism use special teaching tools, speech therapy, work therapy, physical therapy and personal help. A warm and supportive home and family life will help. So will a community willing to accept all children’s challenges and strengths.

Sometimes, people with ASD take drugs to lower repetitive or risky behaviors, seizures or sadness that lasts. A person with autism may have stomach problems requiring drugs or a special diet.

Can a person with autism spectrum disorder live an independent adult life?

Many can. In fact, there are millions of adults who have learned to communicate in unique ways, and support themselves through jobs that match their strengths.

Every child on the autism spectrum has a different set of strengths and challenges. Many have normal intelligence. Some even do better than most in art, music, mechanics or learned skills. Others (between 25 percent and 40 percent) have intellectual as well as communication disabilities. These children may not be able to gain the complex skills a person needs to live as independent adults. They may need to live at home, in supervised group living situations or in residential centers designed for disabled adults.