What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that starts in early childhood. Children with autism spectrum disorder look just like other children. Although they may have learning problems, they have normal or even above-average intelligence.

Child with tutor

Children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty communicating and interacting with people. They have problems reading the emotional signals from others that let them know how someone is feeling. They may also seem clumsy and tend to have repetitive behaviors, such as repeating certain routines or rituals over and over again. Children with autism spectrum disorder don't outgrow it — it is a lifetime condition — but with proper treatment most people can lead full and productive lives.

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder

The first symptoms are usually seen at about age 3:

  • Obsessive interests. Children with autism spectrum disorder often become overly interested in a single object or subject and devote all their time and attention to it. They tend to learn everything they can about that one topic and talk about it constantly, sometimes sounding like a junior expert.

  • Unusual speech. Children with autism spectrum disorder have good vocabularies but unusual ways of expressing themselves. They may talk in a monotone voice and do not recognize the need to control the volume of their voice, speaking loudly in libraries or movie theaters, for example.

  • Social isolation. Children with the condition have trouble making friends because they are awkward in social situations. They may stand too close or talk too loudly to others, who may see their behavior as odd or inappropriate.

  • Physical symptoms. They may have delayed motor skills and be clumsy when they try to ride a bike or play with others. Their body movements may seem stiff, and they may repeat motions, like rocking or spinning, again and again.

  • Oversensitivity. Children with the condition may be unusually upset by loud sounds, bright lights, strong smells, or being touched. They may also be easily upset by any change in schedules or routines.

Causes of autism spectrum disorder

Although the exact cause of autism spectrum disorder  is not known, current research points to genetic changes that occur during a baby's development in the womb. Autism spectrum disorder tends to run in families, and researchers are trying to identify genes that may be passed down through the generations. Special types of brain images taken of children with the condition show that certain areas of their brains develop and function differently from those of children without the condition. Autism spectrum disorder is not caused by bad parenting.

Diagnosis and treatment

No specific test is available to diagnose autism spectrum disorder. Symptoms usually cause parents and doctors to suspect the problem. Diagnosis may start with developmental screening during a well-child or well-baby exam at the doctor's office.

These are behaviors that may suggest autism spectrum disorder in a young child:

  • Failure to make eye contact

  • Failure to respond to his or her name

  • Not making gestures like pointing or waving

  • Having little interest in playing with other children

  • Showing unusually repetitive movements or behaviors

  • Delayed motor skills and lack of coordination

  • Aloofness or acting disinterested

When autism spectrum disorder is suspected, a team of medical providers will evaluate your child before making a diagnosis. The team may include a pediatrician, a neurologist, a mental health specialist, and a speech and language specialist. If autism spectrum disorder is confirmed, they will help set up a program to help your child learn how to interact with other children and adults.

Here are types of therapy that children with autism spectrum disorder may receive:

  • Social skills training to teach them how to play and interact with other children

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to help them learn how to deal with their feelings and avoid obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors

  • Speech and language therapy to show them how to speak more normally

  • Occupational therapy to teach them how to use their bodies less awkwardly

  • Education and support to help parents learn how to manage autism spectrum disorder at home

With early diagnosis and proper treatment, youngsters can learn to cope and manage autism spectrum disorder. Adults with the condition often need continuing care and support, but many are able to lead independent and successful lives.