By Wendy Innes. May 7th 2016

Once a very rare developmental disorder, affecting only five out of every 10,000 children, autism spectrum disorders have increased dramatically over the past few decades. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now estimate that one in every 110 children will be born with some form of autism. Though it is not known why, the number of boys diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders outnumbers girls, four to one. Here you’ll find the necessary information needed to gain a basic understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorders are a set of developmental disorders that are usually diagnosed in children between birth and three years old. Diagnosing autism spectrum disorders can be difficult and can require several trips to a pediatrician who specializes in child development. Autism spectrum disorders have similar symptoms, but can vary greatly in severity. Because of this children are often evaluated and tested extensively before they are officially placed “on the spectrum” as it is known.

The conditions on the spectrum range from mild to severe. In no particular order, they are:

  • Asperger's Syndrome causes high functioning autism. These patients are able to maintain normal lives, but they have problems expressing emotions and interacting with others. Many people with Asperger's syndrome are not diagnosed until they are adults because their development appears normal. People with Asperger's Syndrome are frequently misdiagnosed with other conditions that produce similar symptoms such as such as obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder is a rare form of autism that reduces a child's will to interact with others. Children will stop playing and interacting with others. Their development will regress, and they will lose skills that they had previously developed.
  • Rett Syndrome is a condition that affects young girls. The disease causes the muscles to become atrophied. Patients with Rett Syndrome will exhibit repetitive hand motions and will show signs of mental retardation. The girls with Rett Syndrome tend to be low functioning and will require care for their entire lives.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder occurs among children. The symptomatic differences between Pervasive Developmental Disorder and general autism are minimal.

Causes and Risk Factors

There is no single known cause of autism. It is widely thought that a number of factors combine to cause autism. Some factors may be genetic, while some factors may be environmental, such as exposure to certain viral infections or environmental pollutants.

  • One of the things that scientists have been able to rule out as a possible cause is common childhood vaccines. It was once thought that a particular ingredient in vaccines, particularly the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, called thimerosal, was the cause of autism. However there has been no single study that has found this to be true. Thimerosal has since been removed from most vaccines and reduced to trace levels in the others.
  • There are some risk factors for developing autism, though they are fairly broad. Having a male child increases the risk of the child developing autism since boys develop autism four times more than girls.
  • A family history of autism spectrum disorders makes a child more likely to develop a disorder themselves. It is not uncommon for parents to have some minor symptoms of autism as well.
  • Children who have certain medical conditions such as Fragile X syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and epilepsy have an increased risk of developing autism.
  • Those children whose parents are over 40 years old at the time of their birth are also at a higher risk of developing autism, along with other medical problems. This is the reason that women over the age of 35 are monitored more closely and undergo additional testing throughout their pregnancies.


There is great variation in the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. No two children with autism are the same, which contributes to the difficulty in treating the condition. There are three main areas in which children with autism have difficulties; social skills, language and behavior. Even though each child will have their own unique pattern of behaviors the most common symptoms of autism include;

Social Skills

  • The child doesn’t respond to their name when called
  • The child doesn’t make eye contact
  • The child is tactile defensive (meaning they resist being touched)
  • The child seems not to hear people when spoken to.
  • The child seems unaware of the feelings of others, particularly family members
  • The child prefers to be “in their own world”, choosing solitary play over interacting with others.

Language Skills

  • Begins speaking late
  • May lose previously acquired speech abilities
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm
  • Can’t start or maintain conversations
  • May repeat words or phrases, but doesn’t know what they mean


  • Performs repetitive motions such as spinning, hand flapping, or rocking
  • Sticks to specific routines of behavior and becomes quite upset if the routine is disrupted
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by a certain part of an object, such as spinning wheels
  • Unusually sensitive to certain stimuli like light, sound or touch, but doesn’t respond normally to pain
  • As previously mentioned there is great variation between the different conditions on the autism spectrum. Asperger’s syndrome for example doesn’t have nearly as much of a language component of classic autism.


There are a number of treatment options available for autism, but sadly there is no cure. The treatment of autism focuses on helping children live a more normal life, and treating individual symptoms. There is no one particular treatment, but rather the most effective treatments are multi-faceted and tailored to the individual child. These include:

  • Behavioral and communication therapies to help children communicate more effectively with others, learn self care skills and to help retrain problem behaviors
  • Educational therapies to help children learn effectively while receiving therapy in a school environment. Research shows that autistic children who receive intensive pre-school education services do very well as they get older.
  • Medication therapy is used to treat certain symptoms such as the anxiety that autistic children feel at living in a world they don’t understand and find disturbing.

There is a lot of hope and resources available for children with autism spectrum disorders. While a diagnosis of autism can be devastating to parents, it’s important to remember that autism is not the end of the world, and that with treatment, many autistic children grow up to be happy, successful adults.


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