Last Updated: October 25, 2017

Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Overview

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are terms for a disability characterized by impaired social skills, impaired speech, and repetitive behaviors. The signs of ASD usually appear in infancy or very early childhood. ASD consists of a spectrum of signs and symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Some Individuals demonstrate only mild signs of autism and function well, but others persons, with severe forms of ASD, may experience profound debilitation throughout their lives.

ASD is considered a single disorder that encompasses the following autism subtypes once thought to be separate conditions:

The prevalence of ASD is increasing, and 1 of 68 children has some form of the disorder. ASD is four times more common in males than females.

Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of ASD is still unknown, and there is no explanation for the increasing incidence of this disorder. Researchers have established that genetic factors are involved. Having a sibling with ASD significantly increases a child’s risk of also having ASD. Having older parents also increases a child’s risk of ASD. Certain medications taken during pregnancy may be linked to the disorder as well.

Symptoms

The signs of ASD start in infancy or early childhood and continue throughout life.

The predominant sign of ASD is impaired social interaction. Infants and children with ASD do not respond appropriately to other people. Such persons appear withdrawn and are often preoccupied with a single object.

Children with ASD commonly display the following signs and symptoms:

Diagnosis and Treatment

The hallmark findings of ASD are impaired social skills, limited language skills, and behavioral problems. Often, the signs and symptoms are unrecognized and the diagnosis is delayed. Frequently, ASD is mistaken for a hearing problem, because typically these patients do not respond to their name.

When ASD is suspected, a child requires a comprehensive evaluation by experts in human behavior, nervous system conditions, and speech disorders. This team of experts may include a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, and speech therapist. Each of these health care providers performs a special assessment to confirm the diagnosis.

There is no known cure for ASD; however, intensive therapies can significantly improve autism symptoms. The goals of treatment are to reduce or eliminate inappropriate behaviors, increase communication skills, strengthen social skills, and improve functioning in a community. Prompt diagnosis is essential, because early intervention provides better outcomes.

Prevention

Ways to prevent ASD are as yet unknown; however, early intervention can substantially improve a child’s behavior. Intensive therapy allows many individuals with ASD to function well in their lives.

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Carla Hightower, MD

Dr. Hightower is an experienced physician who studied medicine at Northwestern University, where she also earned an MBA. As the founder of Living Health Works, she offers health coaching to individuals, private groups and corporations.