Autism, or autistic disorder, is one of a group of developmental disorders (autism spectrum disorders) that can cause language delays, social difficulties, intellectual disabilities, and unusual behaviors.Autism is more severe than other forms of autism spectrum disorders and appears at a young age, usually in children under 3 years old. There is no cure for autism, but parent education and early intervention can be successful in helping autistic children function in day-to-day life.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms of autism vary but typically involve social interaction skills, language skills, and behavior. Children with autism show a marked lack of social skills and may avoid eye contact, fail to respond to questions, and resist physical contact. During interactions, they may speak in odd tones or not at all and repeat words or phrases without understanding how to use them. Several behavioral habits can also signal autism, including repetitive movements, engaging in strict rituals, fascination with a very specific object, odd food preferences, and self-harming activities. Intellectual abilities vary greatly in autistic children; some may have lower than normal intelligence, while others are extremely intelligent. Rarely, autistic children are savants with skills in a very particular area.

Although it can be difficult to recognize autism in infants, some signs include not smiling by 6 months, not mimicking sounds or facial expressions by 9 months, not gesturing by 12 months, not saying single words by 16 months, and not saying two-word phrases by 24 months.

Pediatricians check for signs of developmental delays during routine checkups. An autism specialist can evaluate a child showing signs of autism by observing the child’s behaviors and language skills and administering developmental tests to pinpoint issues. A formal diagnosis of autism requires that the child meet diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). To be diagnosed as autistic, a child must meet six or more criteria in the categories of social skills, communication skills, and behavior, with two of those criteria falling under social skills.


The cause of autism is unknown, but researchers believe that genetics and environmental factors are related to its development. Autism is much more likely to occur in boys than in girls, and some research suggests that children born to older parents may have an increased risk of autism. Families who have one child with autism are also more likely to have another child with the disorder. Autism risk may be heightened in children with medical conditions such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, and epilepsy. Although some theories suggest that vaccines may be linked to autism, there is no evidence that vaccinations, particularly the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, have any association with autism spectrum disorders. Continue reading for Prevention and Treatment Information . . .

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