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Quick Facts

Autism Spectrum Disorders

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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What are autism spectrum disorders?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental problems that affect how people interact with other people and communicate. People with ASD have trouble talking with and relating to other people. They also have unusual behaviors.

  • ASD is a spectrum, so symptoms can range from mild to severe

  • People with ASD often have unusual, repetitive behaviors, limited interests, and follow rigid routines

  • Symptoms of ASD may be noticeable before age 2

  • People with mild symptoms may not be diagnosed until they are school-age

  • ASDs are different from intellectual disability (when you are born with lower than normal intelligence that makes it hard to carry out daily activities) and Rett syndrome (a rare genetic disorder in girls that causes social and language problems and repeat hand movements)

  • ASDs aren’t caused by vaccines (shots) or bad parenting

What are the symptoms of ASD?

Children with ASD will show varied symptoms, but to be diagnosed with ASD, your child must have both:

  • Trouble with social communication and interaction

  • Unusual, repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities

Symptoms of trouble with social communication

  • Your baby doesn’t cuddle

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Trouble sharing thoughts and feelings with others

  • Trouble understanding others’ moods, body language, and facial expressions

  • Choosing to play alone

  • Slow to start talking or never learning to talk

  • Repeating words other people have said (echolalia)

  • Memorizing words instead of coming up with them on their own

  • Using pronouns wrong, such as using “you” instead of “I” or “me”

  • Talking with a strange rhythm and pitch

Behavior and activity symptoms:

  • Trouble with change, such as new food, toys, and clothing

  • Attachments to non-living objects

  • Rocking, hand flapping, or spinning

  • Head banging or biting themselves

  • Repeating certain actions, such as watching the same movie over and over or eating the same food every meal

  • Unusual interests, such as being very interested in vacuum cleaners or ceiling fans

  • Being extremely bothered by certain tastes, smells, or textures

Many people with ASD have intellectual disability. Usually, scores are lower on verbal tests than other areas.

How can doctors tell if my child has ASD?

Doctors will observe your child in a playroom and ask you and your child’s teachers questions. They will send your child to a psychologist for other tests.

Doctors will also do blood or genetics tests (inherited medical disorders) to see if a different problem is causing your child’s symptoms, such as a genetic disorder like hereditary metabolic disorders or Fragile X syndrome.

How is ASD treated?

The symptoms of ASD are generally lifelong. People with ASD with lower intelligence scores are likely to need more support in their adult lives.

ASD is treated with:

  • Behavioral therapy to develop social skills

  • Other therapies, such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy

  • Special education at school

  • Medicine, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other medicines to treat repetitive behaviors and mood

Some families try special diets or alternative therapies, but there is no good evidence that these are helpful for children with ASD. Talk to your doctor about any therapies you are considering.