Conditions InDepth: Autism

These pages are addressed to the parents of a child who has autism.

Autism is a severe and complex brain disorder that first presents in children who are age three and younger. People with autism have difficulty communicating and forming relationships. They may appear intensely preoccupied by specific, often unusual, interests and activities, and engage in repetitive behaviors. People with autism also show signs of altered sensory input, such as overreacting to particular sounds. They have underdeveloped communication skills, and half of people with autism never learn to speak.

The condition is believed to affect three children in every thousand—a significant incidence. It is not outgrown. Many people with autism need to have constant supervision and assistance throughout their lives. There are, however, remarkable success stories and the occasional miraculous "savant" who demonstrates extraordinary abilities, such as phenomenal mathematical calculations or playing a musical instrument they have never studied.

Autism represents failure of normal brain development. Very little else is known about the causes of this condition. Every child diagnosed with autism is different, and many have additional conditions like seizures and mental retardation. So far there has been no common ground upon which to base a search for a cure, although research is intense and scientists are continuing to make discoveries. Studies suggest:

  • Genes play a role. Autism seems to run in identical twins and in some families. Several genes may be involved.
  • Problems during pregnancy or delivery may interfere with normal brain development.
  • A viral infection in a pregnant woman may be a factor.
  • Exposure to environmental toxins, such as mercury, may contribute to the condition.

What are the risk factors for autism?
What are the symptoms of autism?
How is autism diagnosed?
What are the treatments for autism?
Are there screening tests for autism?
How can I reduce my child's risk of autism?
What questions should I ask my doctor?
What is it like to live with autism?
Where can I get more information about autism?


Autism spectrum disorders (pervasive developmental disorders). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. Available at: . Updated April 2008. Accessed September 11, 2008.

National Center on Birth Defects and Environmental Disabilities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: . Updated June 2008. Accessed September 11, 2008.

Rapin I. An 8-year-old boy with autism. JAMA . 2001;285:1749-1757.

What causes autism. Autism Society of America website. Available at: Updated January 2008. Accessed September 11, 2008.

Last reviewed July 2008 by Rimas Lukas, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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