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Autism Spectrum Disorder


What is autism?

Autism is a brain development disorder that leads to problems with language, behavior, and social interaction. A child with autism often has mental retardation. This means your child will develop or learn more slowly than others his age. It may be hard to know how much your child's development and learning are delayed. He may not show clear signs of autism until he is at least 3 years old. He may develop normally for 1 to 2 years and then start losing skills. These problems will continue throughout your child's lifetime.

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism is not known. Experts believe autism is a genetic disorder. Your child is more likely to have autism if a parent or sibling (especially an identical twin) also has autism. The following also raise your child's risk for autism:

  • He is a boy.
  • He has other genetic or medical problems such as Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome.
  • He was exposed to harmful drugs in the womb before birth.

What are the signs and symptoms of autism?

The signs and symptoms of autism are mild in some children and severe in others.

  • Social problems: Your child may have problems with how he gets along with other people. He may not look at you or other people. He may have trouble with facial expressions and knowing what they mean. He may not be able to change his behavior to respond to others. Your child may want to be alone and not play with other children. He may seem like he does not have fun when he plays. He may also have anxiety when he is in a social setting, such as school or parties.
  • Communication problems: Your child may not be able to speak as well as other children his age. He may not speak at all. If your child can speak, he may not be able to start or stay in a conversation. Your child may say the same words over and over. He may not understand or seem to hear you when you talk to him. He may not answer to his name.
  • Behavior problems: Your child may repeat certain actions. For example, he may flap his hands or rock back and forth. Your child may be more sensitive to light, sounds, touch, and smells. He may not respond to pain or show emotions in reaction to something. He may laugh or cry for no known reason. He may have temper tantrums or harm himself, such as bang his head or bite himself. Your child may be hyperactive (overly excited or restless), and he may do things without thinking about the outcome. He may show interest in only parts of objects. He may also eat only a few foods. He may eat items that are not food, such as paint chips, string, or cigarette butts.

What medical problems may my child with autism have?

  • Digestive problems: Your child may often have stomachaches, heartburn, or stomach bloating. He may also have diarrhea.
  • Seizures: Your child may have convulsions, or he may have changes in his mental state. For example, he may stare off and not respond.
  • Sleep problems: Your child may have trouble falling asleep, or wake up many times during the night. He may rock his body when he wakes. He may also wake at early hours in the morning.

How is autism diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will watch your child play. He may ask you questions about your child's behavior at home. If your child's autism is diagnosed before he is 3 years old, certain tests may be repeated as he gets older. Ask healthcare providers if your other children should also be tested for autism. Your child's healthcare provider may do a physical exam, and any of the following:

  • Developmental tests: These are tests that healthcare providers use to see how your child is growing and developing. There are normal skills and activities that babies and children learn at certain ages. These activities include the age your child sits up, walks, talks, plays, and copies others. Healthcare providers watch for these actions and compare your child with other children the same age.
  • Blood tests: Your child may need blood taken for tests. His blood may be tested for chemicals such as lead or vitamin levels. These tests are done to check for other causes of your child's behavior and development delays. Blood tests may also show genetic disorders that may increase your child's autism risk.
  • Auditory and visual tests: These are tests that check your child's hearing and eyesight. Your child may have delays if he cannot hear or see as well as he should.
  • EEG: This test is also called an electroencephalogram. Many small pads or flat, metal buttons are put on your child's head. Each pad has a wire that is hooked to a machine. This machine records a tracing of brain wave activity from different parts of your child's brain. Caregivers look at the tracing to see how your child's brain is working.

How is autism treated?

The goal of treatment is to decrease your child's symptoms and improve his social skills, behavior, and communication. Treatment that begins before your child is 3 years old is called early intervention. Early intervention may help your child learn and retain new skills. Treatment may need to change many times during your child's life to help fit his needs. The main treatments for autism include therapies and educational programs, medicines, and changes to the foods he eats. Ask your child's healthcare provider for information about other types of treatments.

What therapies are used for autism?

Your child may work with different therapists for many hours each day. Therapy may be 30 to 40 hours each week.

  • Behavioral therapy: This type of therapy is done to help your child learn new skills. Your child may learn new ways to communicate. Behavioral therapy also teaches your child which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Behavioral therapy is normally done at home, in daycare, or at school. Parents are encouraged to be involved in therapy to support and develop positive relationships.
  • Occupational therapy: A therapist will work with your child to help him learn common daily activities. A therapist may help teach your child to dress himself, feed himself, and how to keep himself clean. The therapist may also help your child learn to interact with others. Your child may be taught other forms of communication besides spoken words, such as gestures.
  • Speech therapy: A therapist helps teach your child how to communicate. Your child may be taught other forms of communication besides spoken words, such as gestures.
  • Sensory integration: This is therapy to help your child if he has trouble with his senses. This includes being bothered by sounds or smells, or being touched. A therapist works with your child to improve his ability to cope with certain sounds and smells. He will also help your child learn to accept touch from others.

What medicines may be used for autism?

  • Antipsychotic medicines: These medicines are given to decrease anger and anxiety. They may also help keep your child from hurting himself.
  • Seizure medicines: These medicines help stop or decrease seizures.
  • Serotonin reuptake inhibitors: These medicines help decrease your child's anxiety and improve his mood. They may also help decrease behaviors that are repeated over and over.

What dietary changes may be suggested for autism?

  • Food changes: Your child's healthcare provider may suggest your child not eat foods with gluten and casein. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Casein is found in milk and other dairy products. Always talk with your child's healthcare providers before you make changes to what your child eats.
  • Vitamins and supplements: Your child's healthcare provider may suggest vitamins and supplements, such as vitamin B and omega-3 fatty acids. These may help decrease his symptoms.

What are the risks of autism and its treatment?

  • Your child may have side effects from medicines he takes to decrease his symptoms. Even with treatment, your child may not learn to get along well with others or do well in school. His language delays and behavior problems may not improve. Your child may not be able to live on his own as an adult. He may have trouble with even basic skills, such as getting dressed.
  • Without treatment, your child may not learn to communicate or live on his own. Your child may harm himself or others, and his symptoms may get worse. He may swallow objects. Swallowed objects may contain lead or germs that can cause illness or death. Your child may need surgery to remove swallowed objects. Feeding problems may prevent your child from getting the nutrition he needs. He may get dehydrated.

How can I help care for my child with autism?

  • Follow your child's treatment plan: Follow the guidelines that healthcare providers give you as to how you can help your child gain new skills. You may need to spend many hours each day teaching new skills to your child. Speak to all of your child's home caregivers about your child's treatment plan.
  • Make your home safe: Keep your child away from objects that he may try to swallow. You may want to install motion alarms in your house. These alarms will wake you if your child gets out of bed at night. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about other ways to help keep your child safe.
  • Feed your child healthy foods: It is important that your child gets the right vitamins in his diet and drinks enough liquids every day. If your child will eat only specific foods, work with healthcare providers to plan his meals. Healthcare providers may suggest blending foods your child will eat with others he refuses. This may help your child get the nutrients he needs. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about vitamin supplements.
  • Have a bedtime routine: Have your child go to bed at the same time each night. Give your child quiet activities to do before bed. Try to wake your child at about the same time each morning. This may help decrease his sleep problems.

Where can I find support or more information?

  • Autism Society of America
    4340 East-West Highway
    Bethesda , MD 20814-3067
    Phone: 1- 800 - 328-8476
    Web Address:

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child becomes depressed, or has new problems eating or sleeping.
  • Your child loses language, play, or other skills he had.
  • Your child has a stomachache, diarrhea, or feels like he is going to throw up.
  • Your child is not drinking liquids or is not urinating as much as he usually does.
  • Your child has less energy, or is sleepier than usual.
  • Your child is eating poorly and is losing weight.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your child injures himself.
  • Your child has a seizure, or you cannot wake him up.
  • Your child swallows something that is not food.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorder

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