12028 Health Library | Health and Wellness | Wellmont Health System
  • Autism

    (Autism Spectrum Disorders; Pervasive Developmental Disorders)


    Autism is a spectrum of complex brain disorders. The disorders result in social, behavioral, and communication problems. Other conditions that are part of this spectrum include Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. In the United States, autism spectrum disorders affect about 1 in 100 children aged 3-17 years old.


    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:
    • Autism seems to run in some families. Several genes may be involved.
    • Problems during pregnancy or delivery may interfere with normal brain development.
    • Something in the environment that a child is exposed to may be a factor.

    Risk Factors

    These factors increase your chance of developing autism:
    • Sex: male (boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls)
    • Family history: siblings of a child with autism have a 3%-7% chance of being autistic.
    • A number of other conditions are related to autism, although the relationship between them is not clear:
    • Having parents who are older
    The Conditions Above Primarily Affect the Central Nervous System
    Central Nervous System
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


    Autism usually first appears during early childhood (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.
    Symptoms include:
    • Avoiding social contact
    • Having problems with language (loss of language)
    • Using words incorrectly
    • Communicating with motions instead of words
    • Avoiding eye contact
    • Having trouble with nonverbal communication
    • Lacking interest in normal activities for that age
    • Spending a lot of time alone
    • Not playing imaginatively
    • Not starting pretend games
    • Not imitating others
    • Having sensitivity to sound, smell, taste, sights, and touch
    • Reacting to stimulation in an abnormal way
    • Not reacting to smiles
    • Being hyperactive
    • Being passive
    • Having tantrums
    • Being single-minded
    • Being aggressive
    • Hurting self (self-mutilation)
    • Repetitive movement, such as rocking or flapping a hand
    • Resisting change
    • Forming unusual attachments to objects
    • Sniffing or licking of toys
    • Not understanding other peoples' feelings and needs
    • Having constipation and being a picky eater
    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 the child's behavior. Some doctors ask parents to bring in videos of the child at home.
    Tests may include:
    • Neuropsychological tests
    • Questionnaires and observation schedules
    • Intelligence tests
    Medical tests to rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms may include:
    • Blood tests
    • Urine tests
    • DNA testing
    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:

    Special Education

    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.

    Therapy Services

    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.


    There are no drugs to treat autism. Some drugs are used to help manage symptoms. Aripiprazole and risperidone are the only drugs currently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat autism-related symptoms. Medicines for anxiety and depression can also help treat obsessive and aggressive behaviors. Your child's doctor may use other medicines to help control other disruptive behaviors.

    Other Therapies

    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 guidelines for preventing autism. The cause is unknown. Scientists are searching for its underlying causes.


    Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html

    Autism Society of America http://www.autism-society.org


    Autism Canada Foundation http://www.autismcanada.org

    Autism Society Canada http://www.autismsocietycanada.ca


    Autism 101: a free online course. Autism Society of America website. Available at: http://support.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about%5Fcourse . Accessed November 11, 2012.

    Autism spectrum disorders. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us . Updated June 23, 2011. Accessed July 26, 2011.

    Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) page. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html . Updated August 7, 2012. Accessed November 11, 2012.

    Dawson G, Rogers S, Munson J, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: the early start Denver model. Pediatrics . 2009 Nov 30.

    Autism spectrum disorders (pervasive developmental disorders). National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-pervasive-developmental-disorders/index.shtml . Updated November 9, 2012. Accessed November 11, 2012.

    Autism fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail%5Fautism.htm . Updated October 17, 2012. Accessed November 11, 2012.

    Rapin I. An 8-year-old boy with autism. JAMA . 2001;285:1749-1757.

    Sykes NH, Lamb JA. Autism the quest for genes. Expert Rev Mol Med . 2007;9:1-15.

    10/30/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us : Ibrahim S, Voigt R, Katusic S, Weaver A, Barbaresi W. Incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism: a population-based study. Pediatrics . 2009;124(2):680.

    12/31/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us : Rice C. Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders—Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, United States, 2006. MMWR Surveill Summ . 2009;58(SS10):1.

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