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You’ve probably heard about autism. You may know someone who is on what doctors call the “autism spectrum.” It could be someone in your family or a kid at school. But what is autism? How does someone get it? And can it be treated?

What Is Autism?

Autism is a word that refers to a wide range of developmental disorders that some people are born with or develop early in life. This group of disorders makes up what doctors call the autism spectrum. Someone whose condition falls within the spectrum has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autism affects the brain and makes communicating and interacting with other people (chatting, playing, hanging out, or socializing with others) more difficult.

People on the autism spectrum often have trouble talking and understanding language from an early age. It can be hard for them to play games and understand the rules when they are kids. As they become teens, people on the autism spectrum might have trouble understanding what clothes are cool to wear, or how to play sports, or how to just hang out and talk.

Not everybody with autism spectrum disorder has the same difficulties. Some people may have autism that is mild. Others may have autism that is more severe. Two people with autism spectrum disorder may not act alike or have the same skills. Some people with autism are especially good at music or computers or art — just like other teens. Others may have trouble with speech and balance and coordination (just like other people!).

About 40% of people with autism spectrum disorder have average or above-average intelligence. The other 60% have intellectual disabilities that range from mild to severe.

What Causes Autism?

Right now, doctors and researchers don’t fully understand what causes autism. Scientists believe it has something to do with genes and environmental factors. New research has found that people are more likely to have a spectrum disorder if someone else in their family has one, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that autism is passed down from parents to children. And autism definitely isn’t contagious — you can’t catch it from someone else.

Some studies suggest that something in the environment could make kids more likely to develop a spectrum disorder, but so far scientists haven’t identified what that thing might be. Other studies have suggested that autism could be caused by viruses, allergies, or vaccines. But none of these theories have been scientifically proven. Most of the scientific studies on vaccines have found no link between vaccines and autism.

Figuring out what causes autism is hard because of how complicated the human brain is. Current research focuses on genetic causes, but since there are so many genes in the human body, it could be a long time before researchers know exactly which ones are involved.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

Autism is usually diagnosed when a child is between 18 months and 4 years old. The earlier kids are diagnosed with a spectrum disorder, the sooner they can start getting help with their language and learning skills. There are no medical tests for autism, but doctors may do certain tests to rule out other possible problems, including hearing loss and difficulties with learning and paying attention.

Diagnosing autism can involve lots of health care professionals — such as psychologists, neurologists, speech therapists, psychiatrists, and developmental pediatricians. To decide whether a child has autism spectrum disorder, doctors and other professionals compare the child’s levels of development and behavior with those of other kids the same age.

What’s it Like to Have ASD?

Teens on the autism spectrum might have more problems with learning or making friends. Some can be like other teens much of the time but might have differences in the way they learn or in their interests. Some people on the spectrum have special gifts and talents.

Some kids with autism spectrum disorder can go to school just like their peers. People with moderate or severe autism spectrum disorder usually don’t take part in regular classes — typically, they have more trouble talking, and some might not talk at all.

Sometimes it can seem as if kids and teens with autism want to be left alone because they have trouble looking at, talking to, or hanging out with people. Sometimes they can seem rude or act like they’re not interested in others.

Because of the way their brains work, it can be hard for some teens with autism to look at people while they talk. They also may have trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm. And since they’ve been taught by other people how to talk, teens on the spectrum might imitate what they have learned and their voices might sound flat or boring.

People with spectrum disorders often do things that seem unusual or repetitive, like saying the same word over and over or moving a body part in a certain way. When they do this, it’s almost as if their brains have a case of the hiccups. They know they’re doing it, but often have a hard time controlling it.

Sometimes people with autism may seem insensitive or look unemotional, but often they just don’t know how to express how they’re feeling. It doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings — it can just be more difficult for them to show those feelings or understand the feelings of others.

How Is Autism Treated?

There is no cure for autism, but treatment can make a big difference by helping people with autism spectrum disorder have fewer issues related to their conditions. Therapy can help kids with autism learn language and life skills, and ways to develop socially and behaviorally so they can enjoy their lives like other kids.

The brains of kids under 5 years old often adapt more easily. That’s why it’s best to start treatment for autism as early as possible. A treatment program might include:

  • behavioral therapy (using rewards to help kids learn all kinds of skills)
  • educational interventions (school-based help with academic subjects)
  • speech therapy (to help kids talk and understand words)
  • occupational therapy (to help kids with things like balance, coordination, and handwriting)
  • social skills therapy (to help kids learn how to play and talk with others)
  • medication (for problems with things like attention, hyperactivity, and sleep)

Many other types of therapy (including diet, music, and art therapies) can help people with autism spectrum disorder. Teens with autism who don’t attend regular classes in middle school and high school can also benefit from going to special-education classes or separate schools for students with disabilities.

When Someone You Know Is on the Autism Spectrum

You’re bound to meet someone with autism spectrum disorder at some point. If you know someone who is on the autism spectrum, try to be understanding and patient. Don’t expect the person to view the world the same way you do.

Sometimes it can be hard for teens with autism to interact with other people. For them, learning to communicate and express emotions can be like learning a foreign language. When even a casual conversation requires so much effort, and when hanging out or talking to a classmate becomes stressful and frustrating, it can be hard for people on the autism spectrum to make friends.

Even though people on the autism spectrum see the world in a different way, there’s plenty to connect on, like playing video games. If you know someone on the autism spectrum, you can help just by including him or her or where possible or hanging out one-on-one. Watching how you interact with other people can help the person learn rules for friendships and make it easier to make other friends.

Reviewed by: Raphael Bernier, PhD
Date reviewed: January 2014