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Autism Overview

Autism - or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - is a group of developmental disabilities that most often appears during the first three years of life. It affects how a person communicates and interacts with others. ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, but are four times more likely to be found in boys than girls. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found about 1 in 150 eight-year-old children in multiple areas of the United States had an ASD.

Although more children are diagnosed with autism today than ever before, the outlook for these individuals has changed dramatically. Several decades ago, if a child was diagnosed with autism, there was little hope for leading anything close to a "normal" life. In fact, many parents were encouraged by professionals to place their child with autism into institutional care to spare the family the stress and heartache of attempting to raise the child. However, recent research has demonstrated that by providing the child with services and support at appropriate developmental levels, significant gains in most life areas can be achieved.


No one is sure what causes autism. However, researchers do have some ideas. They know that autism is at least somewhat genetic. This means that if someone in the family has autism, it is a little more likely that someone else in the family could be born with autism as well. Some researchers think that a few things in the environment might be a part of what causes autism. Researchers also have ideas about what might not cause autism. It seems unlikely that vaccines are the cause. The signs of autism tend to show up around the same time children are getting their vaccines, which can create confusion.


Symptoms of autism tend to appear at a very early age. The major symptom is that the child starts having problems with social interaction. This might mean the child does not respond to people trying to talk to him or he stares off into space for long periods of time.

As the child gets older, she may not be able to relate to those around her very well, or skills like talking may be delayed. Some parents report that their children were reaching all their milestones on time and then stopped, or even possibly lost skills they once had.

Children might do some simple things over and over again, like rock back and forth, sing a song, or scratch themselves. Many children with autism are also sensitive to touch: some do not like to be touched – even lightly, while others prefer touch with a deep pressure.

Parents and families know their own children best. Because of this, they are most likely to know when something is wrong. If you see any of the above symptoms in your child, you should take him or her to a pediatrician for an evaluation.

Different Types

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it can be mild or severe or somewhere in between. The spectrum of disorders can also include a diagnosis of PDD-NOS, which stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified. A diagnosis of PDD-NOS means that the child has some symptoms of autism but not quite enough to make a firm diagnosis at that time.

A child with severe autism might not be able to talk. A child with medium autism may have limited skills. One of the mildest kinds of autism is called Asperger syndrome. People with Asperger syndrome have normal or above-average intelligence and IQs. They tend to have a hard time in social situations.


Some doctors specialize in autism specifically. They may be best able to diagnose and treat your child. One way to find an autism specialist is to check with local hospitals or a nearby university. Your child's pediatrician might also be able to recommend a specialist.

Autism cannot be cured, but treatment can be helpful in reducing some symptoms or in helping the child learn new skills. Treatment is a team project. An autism team will usually include:

This team will run many medical tests. They do this because the symptoms of autism overlap with symptoms of other diseases, and the doctors want to be sure of the diagnosis. The team will also assess your child's behavior. These tests might include watching your child or asking you questions about your child.

Recommended Therapies

Two therapies are most often used to help children with autism:

  1. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is helpful for younger children. The therapy is one on one, and the therapist comes to the child's home. The goal of ABA is for the child to develop skills at the same level as his or her classmates without autism. This therapy can cost a lot of money.
  2. Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH) teaches that the child may not be able to be like the other children. Instead, the child learns to be successful within his or her limitations.


Any therapy can cost a lot of money. The Autism Society of America is a highly recommended resource that provides a comprehensive listing of state programs and resources, a toll free number, 1-800-3 AUTISM, as well as an online referral database, AutismSource. The Autism Treatment Center of America also has information about a number of programs and services. Additionally, Autism Speaks provides a publication called the 100 Day Kit that gives concrete, albeit perhaps a little overwhelming, steps to take after a child is diagnosed.

Ohio parents may find various forms of assistance by visiting Autism Resources for Ohio Parents.

Medication Options

Medications can be helpful for children with autism. SSRIs are often used to help with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, all of which can happen with autism.

Children with autism may become aggressive at times. Anti-psychotics, such as Risperidone/Risperdal, have been useful and do not have many side effects. However, weight gain is often seen with this medication.

Children with autism may also show signs of overactive behavior or short attention, similar to what is seen in ADHD. Standard medications used to treat ADHD, such as stimulant medications and atomoxetine, may be helpful in managing these symptoms.

If the child has seizures, he or she will be put on anti-convulsants. These medications help control the seizures. Your child's doctor will talk to you about which medications are right for your child.

Early Intervention

The CDC urges the importance of treating ASDs as conditions of urgent public health concern. By doing all we can to identify children's learning needs and starting intervention as early as possible, autistic children can have the chance to reach their full potential.



Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009)
Autism Information Center (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009)
Autism: Reaching for a Brighter Future, Service Guidelines for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (ASD/PDD)
Autism Society of Ohio
Early Intervention Can Make a Difference for Autistic Children
How common is autism?

This article was written by Maya Brown-Zimmerman, Graduate Student, MPH Program, OSU College of Public Health.

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Last Reviewed: Mar 10, 2009

L Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd L Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd
Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Michael G Aman, PhD Michael G Aman, PhD
Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Eric   Butter, PhD Eric Butter, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatricsl
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Luc   Lecavalier, PhD Luc Lecavalier, PhD
Associate Professor of Psychology
Associate Professor of Psychiatry
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
The Ohio State University

Jacqueline Wynn, PhD
Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Director, Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Patricia H Cloppert, BSFS Patricia H Cloppert, BSFS
Faculty Parent Advocate
Program Manager for Parent/Family Support
OSU Nisonger Center
The Ohio State University