Autism Facts

General Definition

An autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that affects many aspects of a child’s functioning. The disorder is characterized by delays in social communication skills, difficulty with social interaction and imaginative play and repetitive behaviors and/or a limited range of interest in activities.

Autism is referred to as a spectrum disorder due to the variety of characteristics and the range of severity that is unique to each child. Even though children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder share a common set of behavioral characteristics, no two individuals will be alike. Each child is unique and has a varying set of strengths and challenges.

Socially, some children may relate comfortably with family members and show social interest while others may be socially withdrawn in almost all situations. Some children are able to use complex language, while others require the use of pictures or signs to communicate. Some children may have excellent learning skills while others may be behind in their development. Children with autism spectrum disorders may also exhibit different symptoms over time or from one situation to the next.

Currently, there is no medical test for autism. Instead, diagnoses are made based on the observation of behaviors associated with the disorder.  During a comprehensive evaluation,   specialists observe and interact with the child, as well as gather information about development from parents and teachers in order to assess if the child meets criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.

Some children with autism spectrum disorder may also present with additional disorders or disabilities. They may experience attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, epilepsy or intellectual disability. It is estimated that approximately 30 percent of those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder are also diagnosed with intellectual disability.

Incidence

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with an autism spectrum disorder is estimated to be one in 59. It is four times more likely to occur in males than in females for unknown reasons.

Causes

There is no single known cause for autism. There are many theories about potential causes, and it appears that multiple factors are involved. Autistic spectrum disorders are physical disorders of the brain that are neurologically based and are not emotional disorders. Parents do not cause autism. The exact cause remains unclear, as we still do not understand how autism affects the structure of the brain, brain function or brain chemistry. There is some evidence of a genetic component, as studies have shown that if a family has one child with autism, they are at some increased risk of having another child with autism. Researchers are actively identifying genes that are considered to be linked to autism. Autism has also been associated with a wide range of prenatal, perinatal and postnatal difficulties.

Parental Response to Diagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis may alter the dreams you have for your child. Remember to maintain your determination, obtain the support you need, and don’t lose hope. There are few guidelines for predicting outcomes for children with an autism spectrum disorder. Research into causes and interventions is currently growing at an amazing rate; much has been learned in the last 10 years. More adults with autism spectrum disorders are describing their experiences and providing us with incredible insight. Certainly, there are successes that have been accomplished with hard work, creativity and perseverance from individuals themselves, their family members and the professionals and community members who are involved.

Family support is very important. Various support groups are available through the local Autism Society, the Exceptional Family Resource Center and other private agencies. Please see the Autism Spectrum Disorder Resource Guide for more information.