The Facts

Imagine living in a world that doesn't completely reach you, and to which you can't always respond. For many people who have autism, this great divide exists between their world and the reality outside of them.

Autism is one of a group of developmental disorders called autism spectrum disorders. Autism affects about 1 in 68 children. Children with autism usually display signs before the age of 3. Autism is 2 to 4 times more likely in boys than girls, and people with autism may be developmentally impaired to some degree.


Many factors may be connected to autism, but no conclusive causes have been found.

There is some evidence that some people with autism have a chemical imbalance in their brain, specifically high levels of serotonin, though there is no explanation of why this would cause autism.

Genetics may also be a factor. In studies of identical twins, if one has autism, there's about an 85% chance the other twin will have it as well. For siblings of a person with autism, chances of having the condition are higher than for the general population.

Symptoms and Complications

The most obvious sign that a child has autism is their inability to interact socially. Babies and infants won't respond to smiles, vocal games, or other stimuli and activities around them. Children won't follow other people with their eyes, or make eye contact. Facial expression and body language are neither understood nor expressed by children with autism. They may also not be able to develop emotional and social relationships.

Many children with autism find it difficult to develop language skills, and they are unlikely to start up a conversation. However, it's not unusual for a person with autism to echo phrases they hear in conversation or have heard in the past.

This tendency to repeat is apparent in other behaviours associated with autism. Certain movements or motions, such as flapping the hands or twisting the body, will be repeated over and over again. Children don't participate in imaginative play but can learn and imitate actions. For instance, a child who appears to be playing telephone - dialing, talking, hanging up - will act this out in exactly the same way and order the next time. This doesn't indicate an active imagination but rather repetition of a learned behaviour. Learning also occurs in an erratic manner - what a child appears to have learned one day may be forgotten the next.

Children with autism frequently prefer to keep a strict order around themselves. Play might consist of lining up objects, or even of being fascinated by some aspect of a toy (its texture, smell, or colour) rather than its function. People with autism often prefer routines to be strictly maintained - serving a meal 5 minutes late can cause a tantrum. An object moved out of its usual place can be extremely distressing, causing a reaction that will only stop when the object is moved back to its usual place.

Other behaviours of people with autism include:

  • acts of self-injury
  • abnormal eating, drinking, or sleeping habits
  • lack of fear, or irrational fears
  • limited activities and interests
  • mood abnormalities
  • short attention span
  • unusual responses to stimuli (lack of interest or oversensitivity)

Although people with autism can be developmentally impaired in many ways, they might also have particular strengths which differ from one person to the next. These may include a talent for music or mathematical calculations, as well as other strengths.

Making the Diagnosis

Because there are no well-identified causes for autism, there's no straightforward test to determine whether or not a child has it. Based on a child's social difficulties, behavioural patterns, and poor ability to communicate, a physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist can identify the child as having autism. Autism is usually detected by age 3.

It is important to have a physician rule out the possibility that the repetitive behaviors are not caused by seizures, and for the proper diagnosis to be made and the correct treatment to be determined.

Treatment and Prevention

There's no cure for autism. Medication may be used to reduce some of the symptoms, such as severe aggression or self-destructive behaviour. Because so little is understood about the causes of this disease, it's not yet possible to develop specific medication treatments.

The most effective treatment available is behavioural intervention and modification. Programs are usually highly structured and focus on developing the child's language and social skills. Therapy is most effective if it's started at an early age. Along with psychiatric care, children with autism benefit from working with a multidisciplinary team consisting of parents, teachers, psychologists, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists. Individualized treatment based on each child's needs is essential, along with sufficient access to a health care team.

Early treatment that's maintained over a long period of time may prove beneficial and some children will improve their language and social skills as they progress to adulthood. The quality of life for individuals with autism can improve as communication is enhanced and daily experiences become more meaningful.