Autism is a mental disorder that begins in childhood that is characterized by persistent impairments in being to engage in social communication and interaction with others. A person with autism often has restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities. The symptoms are present since childhood, and impact a person’s everyday living.
Autism exists on a spectrum. People with severe forms of autism may have a difficult time with everyday activities that significantly limit the kinds of things they do as an adult. People with less severe forms of autism may appear to be perfectly normal, except in certain social situations where the impairment becomes more apparent. Autism may exist with or without accompanying intellectual and language impairments.
An estimated 1 out of every 100 children suffers from autism, a disorder that causes disruption in families and unfulfilled lives for many children.
In 1943 Dr. Leo Kanner of the Johns Hopkins Hospital studied a group of 11 children and introduced the label early infantile autism into the English language. At the same time a German scientist, Dr. Hans Asperger, described a milder form of the disorder that became known as Asperger’s syndrome.
Thus these two disorders were described and are today listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as neurodevelopmental disorders, more often referred to today as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). All these disorders are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.
Since 2013, Asperger’s Syndrome has been considered an autism spectrum disorder, as have the terms childhood autism, Kanner’s autism, atypical autism, high-functioning autism, and childhood disintegrative disorder. Most people previously diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome would be considered to have Level 1 severity, or “high-functioning” autism.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can often be reliably detected by the age of 3 years, and in some cases as early as 18 months. Studies suggest that many children eventually may be accurately identified by the age of 1 year or even younger. The appearance of any of the warning signs of ASD is reason to have a child evaluated by a professional specializing in these disorders.
Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors in their child. In some cases, the baby seemed “different” from birth, unresponsive to people or focusing intently on one item for long periods of time. The first signs of an ASD can also appear in children who seem to have been developing normally. When an engaging, babbling toddler suddenly becomes silent, withdrawn, self-abusive, or indifferent to social overtures, something is wrong. Research has shown that parents are usually correct about noticing developmental problems, although they may not realize the specific nature or degree of the problem.
Autism spectrum disorders range in severity from mild to severe, with the most severe forms characterized by speech and patterns of behavior that can be difficult to understand.
Prevalence, Causes & Diagnosis
In 2007, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the rate is higher than the rates found from studies conducted in the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s (survey based on data from 2000 and 2002). The CDC survey assigned a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder based on health and school records of 8 year olds in 14 communities throughout the U.S. Debate continues about whether this represents a true increase in the prevalence of autism. Changes in the criteria used to diagnose autism, along with increased recognition of the disorder by professionals and the public may all be contributing factors.
Data from an earlier report of the CDC’s Atlanta-based program found the rate of autism spectrum disorder was 3.4 per 1,000 for children 3 to 10 years of age. Summarizing this and several other major studies on autism prevalence, CDC estimates that 2-6 per 1,000 (from 1 in 500 to 1 in 150) children have an ASD. The risk is 3-4 times higher in males than females. Research from 2009 suggests autism now affects every 1 in 110 children.
According to Autism Speaks, a non-profit advocacy association dedicated to understanding autism, there is no single known cause of autism. Instead, researchers have identified a number of characteristics that may make a person be at greater risk for developing the condition. These include genetic factors, environmental factors (such as parents have a child at an older age, pregnancy or birth complications, and pregnancies spaced less than one year apart), and differences in brain biology and structure. There is absolutely no credible, scientific evidence that links autism to childhood vaccines.
Learn more: How Autism is Diagnosed
Treatment of Autism
Early intervention is important in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders. The sooner a child is seen by a specialist, the better outcome for both the child and the family. Most treatment approaches for this condition use psychotherapy as the foundation for change. There are a variety of therapeutic techniques employed to help someone with this condition learn to manage its symptoms over the course of their life.
For some people with autism, interventions may target specific deficits in learning, language, imitation, attention, motivation, compliance, and initiative of interaction. These types of treatment may include behavioral methods, communication therapy, occupational and physical therapy along with social play interventions.
Living With & Managing Autism
What kind of life a person with ASD lives is largely dependent upon a number of factors: how severe the disorder is, and how soon the child received treatment for their symptoms. The less severe and the sooner the child received treatment, the more likely it is that they will have a significantly good ability to live with and manage their condition throughout their life. If a child suffers from severe autism, however, they may require lifelong assistance with a variety of daily activities of living, learning, and work.
There are many ways to get started in your journey of recovery from autism spectrum disorder, whether for yourself or your child or teen. Many people start by seeing their physician or family doctor to see if they really might suffer from this disorder. While that’s a good start, you’re encouraged to also consult a mental health specialist right away too. Specialists — like psychologists and psychiatrists — can more reliably diagnose a mental disorder than a family doctor can.
Some people may feel more comfortable reading more about the condition first. While we have a great library of resources here, we also have a set of and a peer-led, online support group just for this condition.
Take action: Find a local treatment provider
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml on March 2, 2019.