What is autism spectrum disorder? Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disorders. People with ASD have social, communication, language and behavioral problems. They may also display extremely repetitive routines and behaviors. These problems range from mild to severe, covering a broad spectrum of disabilities. ASD includes three related disorders. Doctors used to consider them separate disorders. Now, health experts group them together on a spectrum. They include: Autistic disorder, which is classic autism and is the most serious form of autism Asperger syndrome, or Asperger’s, is sometimes called high-functioning autism. People with Asperger’s typically have social challenges and display repetitive behaviors. However, they have fewer problems with language and communication than people with classic autistic disorder. Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), or atypical autism. PDD-NOS can be a milder form of autism, when a person does not meet all the autism criteria during diagnosis. People with PDD-NOS tend to have more social and language challenges. Symptoms of ASD typically appear in early childhood and continue for a person’s lifetime. The symptoms and their severity vary greatly from child to child and among the different forms of ASD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 1 in 68 American children has ASD. ASD occurs in both genders, but boys are more likely to have it than girls. ASD also appears in all ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, and geographic areas. Health experts do not fully understand what causes ASD. While research continues on the possible causes, the scientific community recognizes that ASD is not due to bad parenting. There is no cure for ASD at this time. However, a variety of therapies and other treatments are available to help people with ASD and their families manage the social, communication, language and behavioral problems. Researchers around the world are studying ASD to learn more about the causes and develop effective treatments. Seek prompt medical care if your child has symptoms of ASD, such as delays in normal development or lack of language or social skills. Sometimes, people with ASD can exhibit aggressive behavior. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if someone with ASD becomes violent, threatening, or dangerously aggressive, or is hurting himself or herself. What are the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder? Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) begin early in life. Parents of children with ASD generally notice symptoms by their child’s first or second birthday. Common symptoms of ASD include social and language problems, abnormally repetitive routines and behaviors, and extreme sensory feelings. However, specific behaviors and symptoms vary in nature and severity from person to person. Communication and language symptoms of ASD Many people with ASD find it difficult to communicate. The following are communication-related symptoms of ASD: Answers questions with unrelated answers Communicates with gestures instead of words or vice versa Does not develop language or develops it very slowly Does not understand or use social cues, such as facial expressions and gestures Interprets what other people say very literally, and does not easily understand jokes or irony Repeats his or her own words or phrases over and over, or repeats what other people say Uses pronouns incorrectly, such as “You would like some water” instead of “I would like some water” Social symptoms of ASD People with ASD have social habits that cause them problems in everyday life. This includes: Dislike of physical contact Inability to maintain eye contact Lack of empathy, which is the ability to understand other people’s feelings Solitary play; children with ASD do not make friends easily Behavioral symptoms of ASD Behaviors that many people with ASD exhibit include: Abnormal sensitivity or insensitivity to the way things look, feel, sound, taste or smell Aggressive and violent temper tantrums Attachment to routines, and inability to cope if things happen outside the routine Attachment to certain objects Extreme impulsivity and hyperactivity Obsessive interest in certain objects or topics (for example, insects) Repetitive or inappropriate activities (for example, licking all the windows on toy cars) Repetitive body movements, such as rocking, flapping arms, rubbing fingers together, and spinning in circles Self-abusive behaviors, such as head banging and biting Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition In some cases, a child or adult with ASD can become violent and pose a danger to herself or others. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if someone with ASD has any of these symptoms: Suicidal thoughts or a desire to hurt oneself or others Violent or threatening behavior What causes autism spectrum disorder? Health experts do not definitively know what causes autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Scientists and researchers are exploring numerous environmental and genetic influences that may make babies and children more likely to develop ASD. This includes the use of certain medications during pregnancy, other medical conditions present at birth, viral infections during pregnancy or during infancy, and chromosomal abnormalities. Poor parenting practices do not cause ASD. There has also been a lot of discussion and research about whether childhood vaccines are linked to ASD. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) shows that vaccines do not cause ASD. These organizations also emphasize that the benefits of vaccines outweigh any risks from them. What are the risk factors for autism spectrum disorder? Researchers have identified certain risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing ASD. They include: Genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome Having a sibling with ASD Having older parents—a mom 35 or older or a dad 40 or older at the time of birth Male gender How is autism spectrum disorder treated? There is no cure for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but several therapies can help a child’s development and behavior. The goals of ASD treatment may include managing tantrums, learning social skills, and helping improve focus and attention span. Each person with ASD has unique behaviors and symptoms, and requires a personalized treatment plan. A child’s family, doctors, therapists and educators can work together to make the best plan. In general, treatment is more successful the earlier it begins after diagnosis. Behavioral, educational and physical therapies The following types of therapies can help people with ASD refine their social skills, adapt to changes in their environment, learn everyday life skills like dressing and bathing, and improve communication. Specific therapies include: Applied behavioral analysis Occupational therapy Physical therapy Sensory integration therapy Speech therapy Medications Medications cannot cure ASD, but they can reduce the severity of certain symptoms, such as anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, and mood swings. Medications include: Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications to help minimize anxiety and mood swings Antipsychotic medications for individuals with severe behavioral symptoms Stimulants, such as the type used for people with attention deficit disorder Other therapies Other therapies that can help include dietary changes, massage therapy, and alternative medicines. What are the potential complications of autism spectrum disorder? With time, many symptoms of ASD can improve. However, if a person does not receive adequate treatment or support, complications can include: Chronic stress Depression Disability including the inability to function effectively at school or work Increasingly disruptive behaviors and habits Lasting effects of self-injury If you need help with an autism diagnosis or treatment, search Healthgrades.com for an autism specialist in your area.