What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder with onset before age 3 with subtle signs of the disorder often being present in early infancy. The presentation of symptoms of autism can vary greatly; however, the characteristics necessary for diagnosing it are as follows:

  1. Impairment in reciprocal social interaction (e.g., limited eye contact, responding to people as if they are objects).
  2. Communicative deficits (e.g., limited or no verbal communicative skills, problems using pronouns).
  3. Repetitive behavior or marked adherence to specific routines (e.g., body rocking, problems transitioning from one activity or environment to another).

Though much is not yet known about the cause(s) of autism, the best current scientific evidence indicates that autism has strong genetic roots and that the characteristics of autism are related to abnormalities in brain development. Certain environmental variables, such as congenital rubella (when an expectant mother contracts German measles), may also be related to the development of autism. The range of impairment and variability in behavioral symptoms of autism presents many challenges in determining whether autism is one kind of problem or many different problems that are somewhat related. The earliest reliable estimates of the prevalence of autism indicated that this disorder occurs in roughly 2-4 children per 10,000. More recently it has been found that the prevalence of the autism spectrum disorders is likely closer to 14.7 per 1,000 children.

Autism can be reliably diagnosed by or before age 3. Expert clinicians can usually detect symptoms of autism during infancy, although a formal diagnosis is generally not made until the child fails to develop functional language by age 2. Boys are three-to-four times more likely to be affected by autism than girls and children with autism often also have mental retardation. Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups.

Although there is currently no known cure for autism, autism treatment is available. Persons with autism can make progress if they receive appropriate, individualized intervention that addresses their specific needs. Research findings suggest that younger children who receive intensive, individualized, behavioral interventions (i.e., Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA) have been shown to make marked progress, with some eventually losing their diagnosis of autism. ABA has been shown to produce improvements in intellectual development and adaptive skills.

We have compiled some of our frequently asked questions about autism and related disorders into a convenient reference, intended to provide basic information about autism and autism treatment to the general public. Please note that it is not intended to constitute medical advice; we always recommend you speak with a trained professional.

Autism Fact Sheet

This section offers a quick, "at-a-glance" reference to help visitors better understand the scope of this disorder.

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