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What Is Autism?

You've probably heard about autism. You may know someone who has it — a younger brother, a friend's sibling, or even a kid in your class at school. So what is autism? How does someone get it? And can it be treated?

Autism is a developmental disorder that some people are born with — it's not something you can catch or pass along to someone else. Autism affects the brain and makes communicating and interacting with other people difficult.

People who have autism often have delayed language development. They usually have trouble with social interactions. Another characteristic of autism is what some people describe as "sensory overload": Sounds seem louder, lights brighter, or smells stronger.

Not everybody with autism has the exact same symptoms. Some people may have autism that is mild, while others may have autism that is more severe. Because autism affects people differently, medical professionals call it a spectrum disorder. Two people with the same spectrum disorder may not act alike or have the same skills.

People with Asperger syndrome and milder forms of autism can have normal intellectual capabilities, and some are of above average intelligence. However, many people with autism have significant intellectual disabilities.

As many as 1 in 110 people have autism, which is more common in guys than in girls.


How Do People Get Autism?

Doctors don't know exactly what causes autism. Experts think it is probably a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Families who have one child with autism have a higher risk of having another child with autism or a similar disorder.

Although scientists haven't yet pinpointed exactly why some people develop autism, they do know that it's not caused by things like vaccines or bad parenting.

How Do Doctors Know It's Autism?

Autism is usually diagnosed when a child is between 11/2 and 4 years old. There are no medical tests for autism, although doctors may run various tests to rule out other possible conditions.

The best way to identify autism is to watch how a child behaves and communicates. Parents can help by telling the doctor how the child acts at home.

Psychologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, or developmental pediatricians all can diagnose autism. In order to do this, the specialist compares the child's level of development and behavior with those of other kids the same age.

How Is Autism Treated?

There's no cure for autism. But kids with autism can learn skills that help them do things that are hard for them, whether it's communicating with others or crossing a street safely.

It's usually best for kids to begin treatment when they're very young and as soon as they're diagnosed. Because autism shows up differently in different people, treatment varies from child to child. The same specialists who help diagnose a child usually work together to come up with the best combination of therapies.

A treatment program might include:

  • speech therapy
  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • behavior therapy
  • social skills training
  • music therapy
  • medication

By the time they're teens, people with autism might take regular classes or attend special classes at the high school level. Some may go to a special school because of ongoing behavior problems.

What's It Like to Have Autism?

Teens with autism might not act like other people (or even like each other) because their brains process information differently.

Sometimes people with autism have trouble talking and might communicate with gestures instead of words. They may have difficulty making eye contact or understanding social cues like smiling or scowling.

It can be hard for kids with autism to make friends, and some may prefer to spend time alone and show less interest in making friends. Others might look for company and friendship, but find it very hard because they don't have the social skills.

Some people with autism may have tantrums or act aggressively when frustrated. That can be upsetting if it's directed at you, but it's not meant to be offensive. It's part of the disorder. Because they can't communicate emotions like anger and frustration in more acceptable ways, they might express themselves in ways that seem inappropriate.

It might seem like people with autism don't feel or show emotion, but that's not true. They can feel affection, but might not express it the same way others do.

People who are sensitive to sensations may draw back when hugged or startle at a sudden noise, even if it's not very loud.

Many people with autism have difficulty coping with change and get anxious if their daily routine is altered. In more severe cases, they might fixate on different objects or ideas or display repetitive motions like rocking or hand flapping.

Some people with autism have intellectual limitations and learning problems; others are highly intelligent, but might have a hard time communicating it.

When Someone You Know Has Autism

If you know someone who has autism, try to be extra patient. Don't expect the person to look at things the same way you do.

Perhaps the most difficult part of coping with autism is interacting with other people every day. For someone with autism, learning to communicate can be like learning a foreign language. Because it's so hard to express themselves and for others to understand them, just talking with a classmate becomes stressful and frustrating.

When even a casual conversation requires so much effort, it's hard to make friends. Teens with autism may have to think constantly about how others will view their actions. They may have to make a conscious effort to pay attention to social cues the rest of us handle without even thinking. Basically, it takes a lot of work for someone with autism to do what comes naturally to most people.

Some behaviors that come across as rude (like interrupting you when you're talking) come from the person's different perception of the world. It's tough for people who can't read social cues and recognize the natural pauses in a conversation to know when to jump in with their own thoughts.

You can help just by including a friend or sibling with autism in your social groups from time to time. This can help the person learn rules for friendships through watching you.

Despite all the day-to-day hurdles, many people with autism lead fulfilling, happy lives on their own or with help from friends and family. Most teens with autism like school, and some can attend regular classes with everyone else. They have individual tastes and enjoy different activities, just like you do.

Some people with autism go on to vocational school or college, get married, and have successful careers. Consider Temple Grandin, for example. Despite having autism, she earned a PhD and became a college professor and expert in animal behavior. She's written several books, including one about her experience called Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism. Although she still struggles with the disorder almost daily, she leads a normal life, just like many other people with autism.

Reviewed by: Persephone Jones, MD, MPH
Date reviewed: April 2010

Kids Health

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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