Autism is a childhood developmental disorder that appears during the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain’s development of usual social and communication skills. Although the exact cause of autism is unknown, there appear to be multiple factors involved, including genetics or heredity. 

 Other suspected contributing causes, none of which has been proven, include:

  • Diet
  • Digestive tract changes
  • Mercury poisoning
  • The body’s inability to properly use vitamins and minerals
  • Vaccine sensitivity

The number of children with autism is not known. A recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that autism and related disorders are more common than previously thought. However, it is unclear whether this is due to an increasing rate of the illness or an increased ability to diagnose it. Autism affects boys 3 – 4 times more often than girls, and family income, education, and lifestyle do not seem to affect the risk of developing autism.

Some parents have heard that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine children receive may cause autism. This theory was based, in part, on two facts: (a) the incidence of autism has increased steadily since around the same time the MMR vaccine was introduced, and (b) children with the regressive form of autism (a type of autism that develops after a period of normal development) tend to start to show symptoms around the time the MMR vaccine is given. This is likely a coincidence due to the age of children at the time they receive this vaccine. However, several major studies have found NO connection between the vaccine and autism.The American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC both report that there is no proven link between autism and the MMR vaccine, or any other vaccine. 

Some doctors believe the increased incidence of autism is due to newer definitions of the disease that include a wider range of children. For example, a child who is diagnosed with autism today may have simply been thought to be odd or strange 30 years ago.


Most parents of autistic children suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 18 months old, and seek help by the time the child is age 2. Children with autism often have difficulties with: 

  • Playing Pretend
  • Social interactions
  • Communication

Some children with autism appear normal before age 1 or 2 and then suddenly lose language or social skills they previously had. This is called the regressive form of autism.

Some children with autism may:

  • Have a high, or low, sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch
  • Have distress when their routines are changed
  • Perform repeated body movements
  • Show unusual attachments to objects
  • Have a wide variety of communication problems
  • Not play well with other children
  • Prefer to spend time alone
  • Have a higher or lower than normal response to pain
  • Have tantrums
  • Have a short attention span
  • Are overactive or very passive
  • Often repeat certain body movements.

Tests and Diagnosis

All children should have routine developmental exams done by their pediatrician. Further testing may be needed if the doctor or parents are concerned. This is particularly true if a child fails to meet any of the developmental standards established by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Parents with a child suspected of having autism should have the child evaluated by a health care provider who is experienced in diagnosing and treating autism, especially since there is no biological test for autism,

Sometimes parents don’t want a child to be diagnosed as having autism because of labeling the child, or stigma. However, without a diagnosis the child may not get the necessary treatment and services.


An early, intensive, appropriate treatment program will greatly improve the outlook for most young children with autism. Most programs build on the interests of the child. Visual aids are often helpful, and treatment is most successful when it is geared toward the child’s specific needs. Therefore, the treatment program should be designed for each individual child, and a variety of treatments are available, including medicines to treat behavior or emotional problems that people with autism may have, including:

  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention problems
  • Extreme compulsions that the child cannot stop
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Outbursts
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Tantrums


Some children with autism appear to respond to a gluten-free or casein-free diet. Gluten is found in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley. Casein is found in milk, cheese, and other dairy products. However, not all experts agree that dietary changes will make a difference, and not all studies of dietary methods have shown positive results. Therefore, parents who are considering dietary changes should first talk to both a doctor who specializes in the digestive system (gastroenterologist) and a registered dietitian. A key reason is to be sure the child still receives enough calories, nutrients, and a balanced diet.

Other Approaches

There have been many widely publicized treatments for autism that don’t have scientific support, and don’t live up to hopes. Parents of children with autism may find it helpful to talk with other parents of children with autism, as well as an autism specialists. They should also be aware that much research related to autism is underway.

Outlook for Children with Autism

Although autism is a very challenging condition for affected children and their families, the outlook today is much better than in the past. In the past, most children with autism were placed in institutions.

Today, with the right therapy, many of the symptoms of autism can be improved, although most affected individuals have some symptoms throughout their lives. Further, most of them are able to live with their families, or in the community. The outlook depends on the severity of the condition, and the adequacy of the treatment received.

The stress of dealing with autism can lead to social and emotional complications for family and caregivers, as well as the person with autism.

When to Contact a Doctor  

Parents should contact their pediatrician (doctor specializing in children) as soon as they think their child is not developing normally.

For More Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

American Academy of Pediatrics – Council on Children with Disabilities.