Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates, relates to other people and how they make sense of the world around them. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that children with autism can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. While all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people are able to live relatively independent lives but others may have accompanying learning disabilities and need a lifetime of specialist support.

Autism facts

    • Autism now affects 1 in 68 children and 1 in 42 boys


    • Autism prevalence figures are growing


    • Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the U.S.


    • Autism costs a family $60,000 a year on average


    • Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism


  • There is no medical detection or cure for autism

What are the signs of autism?

Individuals with ASD must show symptoms from early childhood, typically recognized in the first two years of life. The symptoms fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms. This spectrum will allow clinicians to account for the variations in symptoms and behaviors from person to person. Symptoms of autism may include:

    • Social communication deficit such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions


    • Difficulty in social interactions and building friendships appropriate to age


    • Overly dependent on routines


    • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities


    • Highly sensitive to changes in the environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items


  • Over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colors

Autism symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

What causes autism?

Research suggests that autism has largely genetic causes, but environmental factors may also play a role. Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing or their social circumstances and nor is it the fault of the individual with the condition or their family.

Genetic factors

Having increased genetic risk does not mean a child will definitely develop ASD. Many researchers are focusing on how various genes interact with each other and environmental factors to better understand how they increase the risk of autism.

Environmental factors

Researchers are studying many environmental factors such as family medical conditions, parental age and other demographic factors, exposure to toxins, and complications during birth or pregnancy. As with genes, it's likely that more than one environmental factor is involved in increasing risk for autism.

Can childhood vaccines cause autism?

To date, there is no evidence that any vaccine can cause autism or any kind of behavioral disorder. A suspected link between the MMR vaccine and autism (measles, mumps, rubella) was suggested by some parents of children with autism, but well-documented, wide-ranging studies have discounted any association. Speculation that a preservative used in vaccines, thimerosol, is responsible for an increase in autism cases has also led to studies that have shown no evidence of a link.

What are the types of autism?

Subtypes of autism include:

    • Asperger's syndrome: although Asperger's syndrome is similar in some ways to autism, there are some important differences between the two. Children with Asperger's syndrome typically function better than do those with autism. In addition, children with Asperger's syndrome generally have normal intelligence and near-normal language development, although they may develop problems communicating as they get older.


    • Rett syndrome: Rett syndrome is a rare, but severe brain disorder that affects girls. It's usually discovered in the first two years of life. It is a developmental disorder that affects the central nervous system. The most serious symptoms are the failures of motor development and mental disabilities.


    • Childhood disintegrative disorder: also known as Heller's syndrome. It's a very rare condition in which children develop normally until at least two years of age, but then demonstrate a severe loss of social, communication and other skills. Unlike autism, someone with childhood disintegrative disorder shows severe regression after several years of normal development and a more dramatic loss of skills than a child with autism.


  • Pervasive developmental disorder: PDD refers to a group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, most notably the ability to socialize with others, to communicate, and to use imagination. There is a spectrum within the PDD disorders.

Living with autism

There are many treatment options, social services and programs, and other resources that can help those parents whose child is diagnosed with autism.

Treatments for autism

While according to the current state of science there's no proven cure for autism yet, treating ASD early, using school-based programs, and getting proper medical care can greatly reduce ASD symptoms and increase your child's ability to grow and learn new skills.

Research has shown that intensive behavioral therapy during the toddler or preschool years can significantly improve cognitive and language skills in young children with ASD. Children with autism generally benefit most from a highly structured environment and routines. Treatment for autism may include a combination of the following:

    • Special education: Education is structured to meet the child's unique educational needs.


    • Behavior modification: This includes strategies for supporting positive behavior and decreasing problem behaviors.


    • Speech, physical, or occupational therapy: These therapies are designed to increase the child's functional abilities.


    • Social skills therapies: These therapies address language and social pragmatics in those verbal individuals with autism.


  • Medication: There are no medications currently approved to treat autism, but medications may be used to treat certain symptoms, such as anxiety, hyperactivity, sleep disturbance, and other behaviors that may lead to injury.

Can autism be prevented?

Science does not know ways how to prevent autism. However, early intervention is critical and may help to maximize a child's ability to speak, learn, and function. It is very important that all children see a pediatrician regularly so that any signs of autism can be detected early.

The outlook for people with autism varies depending on the severity of symptoms, the age at which treatment is started, and the availability of supportive resources for the child. Symptoms in many children decrease with intervention or with age. Some adults with autism are able to lead normal lives. Some severely affected children may not be able to live independently as adults due to their lack of functional and communication skills. The outlook is better for children with higher levels of intelligence and communication skills.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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