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(Autism Spectrum Disorders)
by Debra Wood, RN
Autism is a spectrum of complex brain disorders. The disorders result in social, behavioral, and communication problems. Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders used to be known as separate conditions but are now considered part of the autism spectrum.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that problems in brain development cause autism. Scientists are searching for answers about what causes these development problems. Studies suggest:
Risk Factors TOP
Autism is more common in boys. Other factors that increase the chance of autism include:
Autism usually first appears during early childhood between 2-6 years old. The severity of symptoms varies. Behaviors and abilities may differ from day to day. Symptoms may decrease as the child grows older. Children with autism may have a combination of abnormal behaviors.
Some people with autism suffer from other disorders as well, including:
Doctors who specialize in autism will observe the child's behavior, social contacts, and communication abilities. They will evaluate mental and social development. Parents will be asked about their child's behavior. Some doctors ask parents to bring in videos of the child at home.
Tests may include:
Medical tests to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms may include:
An electroencephalogram (EEG) may also be done to record brain activity.
There is no cure for autism. The severity of symptoms may decrease over the years. Children with autism and their families may benefit from early intervention. Children aged 18-30 months who had high-intensity intervention showed improvements in their IQ, language, and behavior.
Children with autism respond well to a structured, expected schedule. Many children with autism learn to cope with their disabilities. Most need assistance and support throughout their lives. Others are able to work and live independently when they grow up.
Children with autism can benefit from:
Programs that meet the child's special needs improve the odds of learning. Children with autism may have trouble with assignments, concentration, and anxiety. Teachers who understand the condition can work with the child's abilities. Programs should use the child's interests. Some children do better in a small-group setting. Others do well in regular classrooms with special support. Vocational training can help prepare young adults for a job.
Speech, physical, and occupational therapies may improve speech and activities. Children with autism need help developing social skills. Mental health professionals can help a family cope with caring for a child with autism. Counselors help parents learn how to manage behaviors.
Applied Behavioral Analysis TOP
ABA is a type of behavior program. It can be used in school, in a therapy setting, and at home. There are a number of different kinds of ABA programs. Talk to your child's doctor about which one might be helpful for your child.
There are no drugs to treat autism. Some drugs are used to help manage symptoms. Medications for anxiety and depression can also help treat obsessive and aggressive behaviors. Your child's doctor may use other medications to help control other disruptive behaviors.
Other Therapies TOP
There are other treatments available. These include dietary changes and alternative therapies. Talk with your child's doctor first to see if any of these would be helpful for your child.
There are no current guidelines to prevent autism because the cause is unknown.
The Autism Society
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Autism Canada Foundation
Autism spectrum disorder fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet. Updated December 6, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018.
Autism spectrum disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at:
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Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
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Updated December 6, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018.
Dawson G, Rogers S, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: The early start Denver model. Pediatrics. 2010;125(1):e17-e23.
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Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardKari Kassir, MD
Last Updated: 1/26/18
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