Frequently Asked Questions

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Subcategories of autism include autistic disorder (or “classic autism”), Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. 
ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art. Autism is estimated to affect more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. Moreover, government autism statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years. There is no established explanation for this continuing increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered. 
Research suggests that the development of autism is rooted in very early brain development. However, in most cases, no one cause can be identified. Research has identified several genes that can cause autism in and of themselves. These account for about 15 percent of cases of autism spectrum disorders. In most cases, genetics alone can’t distinguish why one person has autism and another does not. Gene-environment interactions appear to be at play. Factors most associated with increased autism risk include advanced parental age at time of conception , maternal illness during pregnancy, prematurity with very low birth weight, or oxygen deprivation to the baby’s brain during birth. Mothers exposed to high levels of pesticides and air pollution during pregnancy may also be at higher risk of having a child with ASD. The most obvious signs of autism tend to emerge between 12 and 18 months of age. Some infants and toddlers begin to develop normally until the second year of life, when they lose skills and develop autism – a pattern called “regression.” 

Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 88 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence over the last 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States.

Don’t wait. Talk to your pediatrician or contact your state’s early intervention services department to find out about getting your child screened for autism. For more information, about your child’s rights and public resources, refer to our Autism Behavior Checklist page.

Though autism cannot be fully diagnosed until the child is at least 18 months old, research shows that children as young as 8 to 12 months may exhibit early signs. Parents should look for symptoms such as no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months; no babbling or back-and-forth gestures (e.g. pointing) by 12 months; or any loss of babbling, speech or social skills at any age. For more information, refer to our Autism Behavior Checklist page.

Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academics. About 40 percent have intellectual disability (IQ less than 70), and many have normal to above average intelligence. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disabilities and are unable to live independently. About 25 percent of individuals with ASD are nonverbal, but can be trained to communicate using other means.  There are countless programs, interventions, and forums that offer support to individuals with autism. For some, this translates into developing more effective treatments to address challenges in communication and physical health, while for others, it may mean increasing awareness, acceptance and respect in our communities.

Parents often find the first months after learning that their child has a developmental disorder to be emotional, confusing and challenging. Autism Speaks has developed the 100 Day Tool Kit to help families navigate the tumultuous first 100 days after a child’s diagnosis. You can download a free copy here.

In addition to early intervention services, it is important to have a reputable healthcare team on board. This means finding doctors, therapists, psychologists and teachers who understand and have experience with autism and can respond to the child’s shifting needs appropriately. The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network  (ATN) is a ground-breaking network of hospitals, physicians, researchers, and families at 17 locations across the United States and Canada. ATN clinicians work together to develop the most effective approach to medical care for children and adolescents affected by autism. The ATN’s aim is to provide comprehensive, high-quality care by teams of healthcare professionals who understand autism spectrum disorders and excel at treating associated medical conditions including the sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal problems that can vex children with ASD and their families. You can locate your nearest ATN center here.
Absolutely. In fact, it’s a child’s right. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990, your child deserves access to a “free and appropriate” education, funded by the government. For more information click here.
Many individuals with Asperger syndrome or other high-functioning forms of autism never received a diagnosis as children and may be diagnosed in adulthood, when seeking help for related problems at work or in their social lives. Consider asking your physician for a referral to an appropriate specialist. Professionals qualified to give an adult autism diagnosis include licensed clinical psychologists, neurologists and psychiatrists. Some nurse practitioners, social workers and Master’s level psychologists, as well, have the expertise to diagnose autism in adults.

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