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Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of complex developmental disabilities that affect behavior, communication, and social interactions.

The latest DSM-V, the definitive guide to mental health disorders, merges autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) into a single diagnosis. This acknowledges the fact that within the spectrum there is significant individual variability. Children with ASDs also are prone to developing separate, co-occurring behavioral or psychiatric problems. These include epilepsy, Fragile X syndrome, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, or Tourette syndrome. These conditions also may require treatment.

Here are some common questions about ASDs.

Q: What are the symptoms of ASDs?

A: ASDs affect children in different ways. Some children have mild symptoms, but those at the opposite end of the spectrum may have severe limitations that affect many areas of their lives. Symptoms typically can be detected as young as 18 months, and at times even younger.

Signs of ASDs include:

  • Delayed speech or language development

  • Poor eye contact

  • No response to the child's name by age 12 months

  • Repetitive movements (rocking, flapping hands, or head banging)

  • Difficulty understanding other people's feelings

  • Preoccupation with objects

  • Rigid rituals or routines

  • Unusual sensory responses

  • Prefers to play alone

  • Lack of interest in other people

Most children with ASDs fail to develop vital skills. Some children, however, regress and lose abilities they previously learned.

Q: Are these disorders common?

A:  An average of about 1 in 88 children has an ASD. The number of children diagnosed with ASDs is on the rise. A broader definition of ASDs and better diagnostic tools may be responsible for at least part of that increase.

Q: What causes ASDs?

A:  The cause of ASDs is unknown. Genetic, biologic, and environmental factors may play a role. There has been some controversy about the connection between vaccines and ASDs. Multiple studies have found no evidence that vaccines or the materials used to make or preserve them cause ASDs.

Q: Who is at risk?

A: ASDs occur in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Boys are 4 times more likely than girls to develop ASDs. Children who have certain other developmental disorders, or whose parents or siblings have ASDs, are at greater risk.

Q: How are these conditions diagnosed?

A: No medical tests are available to diagnose ASD. Health care providers should screen young children for developmental delays during well-child visits. They should  assess children specifically for ASDs during their 18- and 24-month checkups. Health care providers may refer children with troublesome symptoms to developmental pediatricians or child neurologists, psychiatrists, or psychologists who specialize in ASDs. These specialists can perform comprehensive evaluations that may include tests for hearing, vision, lead levels, genetic abnormalities, and neurological function. They also may interview parents and observe children's behavior.

Q: Is there a cure?

A: No cure or single treatment exists for ASDs. Specialists design individual treatment plans tailored to each child's needs. Many children benefit from therapies and services that target their behavioral and educational needs. Health care providers may prescribe antidepressants, antianxiety medications, antipsychotic drugs, stimulants, and other medications for ASD-related symptoms and co-occurring conditions. Some children make remarkable progress and function at near-normal levels. Others struggle throughout their lives.

Q: What can parents do to help?

A: If you have concerns about your child's behavior and/or development, talk with your child's health care provider and get a referral for an evaluation, if appropriate. Early diagnosis and intervention when your child's brain is still developing, can help your child make lasting improvements and reach his or her full potential. Many free services are available through public school systems and early intervention programs. To find out about programs in your state, contact the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities at 800-695-0285, or visit the organization's website