Last Update: 08/06/2008 Printer Friendly Printer Friendly   Email This Page Email This Page  

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs)
What is autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication.  Symptoms usually start before age three and can cause delays or problems in many different skills that develop from infancy to adulthood.

What is an autism spectrum disorder?
Different people with autism can have very different symptoms.  Health care providers think of autism as a “spectrum” disorder, a group of disorders with similar features.  One person may have mild symptoms, while another may have serious symptoms.  But they both have an autism spectrum disorder.

Currently, the autism spectrum disorder category includes:

  • Autistic disorder (also called “classic” autism)
  • Asperger syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (or atypical autism)

In some cases, health care providers use a broader term, pervasive developmental disorder, to describe autism.  This category includes the autism spectrum disorders above, plus Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett syndrome.

This Web site uses “autism spectrum disorder” and “autism” to mean the same thing. 

What are the symptoms of autism?
The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas:
  • Communication - both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling)
  • Social - such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation
  • Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) - such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways
The symptoms of autism can usually be observed by 18 months of age. 

There are many possible red flags for autism - behaviors that may be signs or symptoms of autism.  Some features may mean a delay in one or more areas of development, while others may be more typical of autism spectrum disorders.  If you think your child shows red flags for autism, talk to your health care provider.

What are the treatments for autism?

There is no cure for autism, nor is there one single treatment for autism spectrum disorders.  But there are ways to help minimize the symptoms of autism and to maximize learning.

  • Behavioral therapy and other therapeutic options
    • Behavior management therapy helps to reinforce wanted behaviors, and reduce unwanted behaviors.  It is often based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
    • Speech-language therapists can help people with autism improve their ability to communicate and interact with others.
    • Occupational therapists can help people find ways to adjust tasks to match their needs and abilities.
    • Physical therapists design activities and exercise to build motor control and improve posture and balance. 
  • Educational and/or school-based options
    • Public schools are required to provide free, appropriate public education from age 3 through high school or age 21, whichever comes first.
    • Typically, a team of people, including the parents, teachers, caregivers, school psychologists, and other child development specialists work together to design an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help guide the child’s school experiences.
  • Medication options
    • Currently there are no medications that can cure autism spectrum disorders or all of the symptoms.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any medications specifically for the treatment of autism, but in many cases medication can treat some of the symptoms associated with autism.
    • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclics, psychoactive/anti-psychotics, stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs are among the medications that a health care provider might use to treat symptoms of autism spectrum disorders.
    • Secretin—a hormone that helps digestion—is not recommended as a treatment for autism.

    For more information about treatments, check out the What are the treatments for autism? section of the NICHD publication Autism Overview:  What We Know.

Is there a link between autism and vaccines?
There is no conclusive scientific evidence that any part of a vaccine or combination of vaccines causes autism, even though researchers have done many studies to answer this important question.  There is also no proof that any material used to make or preserve the vaccine plays a role in causing autism.

Although there have been reports of studies that relate vaccines to autism, these findings have not held up under further investigation. 

Currently the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the most accurate and up-to-date information about research on autism and vaccines. Its Vaccines and Autism Theory web site provides information from the federal government and from independent organizations about vaccines and autism. 

Is autism more common in certain groups of people?
Three groups are at higher-than-normal risk for autism spectrum disorders, including:
  • Boys
  • Siblings of those with autism
  • People with certain other developmental disorders, such as Fragile X syndrome
For More Information:
Clinical Trials
News Releases
Web Sites
Contact Information:
NICHD Information Resource Center
P.O. Box 3006
Rockville, MD 20847
Phone: 1-800-370-2943
Fax: 301-984-1473
NICHD Information Resource Center
P.O. Box 3006
Rockville, MD 20847
Phone: 1-800-370-2943
Fax: 301-984-1473