What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder. It affects the way people communicate with others and interact with the world. ASD includes five different developmental disorders. 

Doctors used to view them as separate conditions:

  • Asperger syndrome
  • Autistic disorder
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder
  • Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified
  • Rett syndrome

Causes of ASD

Scientists aren't sure what causes autism. Research suggests genetics plays a role in its development. One theory is that certain genes cause a person's brain to develop differently. Another is that some people have a genetic vulnerability that leads to ASD if they come into contact with the right triggers.

Risk factors for ASD

People who have ASD share some common characteristics. Risk factors for ASD include:

  • Family history; those who have a sibling with ASD have an increased risk of developing it
  • Low birth weight; babies born with a very low birth weight have an increased risk
  • Medical history; people with genetic conditions like Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome are more likely to have ASD than people without these conditions
  • Parental age; the risk of ASD increases for children born to older parents
  • Prenatal complications; taking certain prescription medicines during pregnancy increases risk

Symptoms of ASD

The symptoms of ASD usually appear in early childhood before the child turns two. Their parents often report the child doesn't make eye contact or doesn't like to be held. They may also see the child have or do the following:

  • Dominate conversations
  • Have trouble predicting other people's responses
  • Have trouble understanding another person's point of view
  • Make facial expressions or gestures that contrast with what they're saying
  • Participate in activities but look like they're not enjoying them
  • Refuse to look at or listen to people while they talk to them
  • Remember detailed information about their favorite topics for long periods of time
  • Repeat words instead of engaging in conversation
  • Speak with a tone of voice that has a sing-song quality or sounds flat and robotic
  • Spend a lot of time learning about their favorite topics
  • Talk about their favorite topics for extended periods of time even when others don't seem interested

Diagnosis of ASD

Diagnosing ASD requires input from a team of trained professionals. In young children, this often starts in the pediatrician's office. There, the doctor screens children for developmental delays during their check-ups. The doctor may refer kids to one of these specialists:

  • Child psychologist
  • Developmental pediatrician
  • Neuropsychologist
  • Speech-language pathologist

They assess the child's mental processing, language ability and developmental skills. Then, they can rule out other causes of the symptoms.

Older children with ASD usually start the diagnosis process at school. A teacher may recommend the child to the school's special education team. They may complete an initial evaluation. The team may refer the child to a doctor who specializes in ASD. The specialist can conduct a thorough medical examination to rule out other conditions — like hearing loss — that may cause the symptoms.

Treatments for ASD

There's no single treatment for ASD. It's important for people to follow their doctors' instructions. Depending on their symptoms, people may need behavioral, psychological or educational therapy. Through therapy, they learn tools that help them interact with other people and minimize behaviors others find challenging. Some people also take medication to treat symptoms like:

  • Aggression
  • Attention problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Repetitive behavior

Recovery from ASD

There's no cure for ASD, but symptoms can improve. This is why early detection and intervention are important. The sooner a child starts treatment, the more likely they are to develop life skills. Their parents also benefit from early detection. It gives them more time to learn how to use different tools when parenting a child with ASD.