Jonathan B. Jassey, DO, is board-certified in pediatrics. He has been in private practice at Bellmore Merrick Medical in New York since 2007 and is the co-author of "The Newborn Sleep Book."
Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that includes differences or challenges in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and intellectual ability.
The symptoms of autism vary widely in type and severity and are usually seen in early childhood. Some common symptoms include a need for sameness and repetition, anxiety, and atypical responses to sensory input, like unusual sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or taste.
Most cases of autism are diagnosed through interviews, observation, and evaluations by a psychologist, developmental pediatrician, and pediatric neurologist. While there is no established cure, behavioral, educational, and family therapy may help reduce symptoms and build skills.
While certain medication exposures prior to birth, and a few rare genetic syndromes, may cause autism in a small percentage of cases, for most, the precise etiology remains unknown. Factors that increase the risk of having autism include being a male and having a family history of autism.
Genes most likely play a role in the development of autism. This is supported by research that children with a sibling with autism are more likely to develop it. That said, genetic factors are not the whole picture. Environmental factors are also linked to the development of autism.
Vaccines do not cause autism. This is a fact that has been reaffirmed through numerous scientific studies and is robustly supported by the medical community.
In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version 5 (DSM-5) created just one diagnostic category for people with autism—called autism spectrum disorder. Therefore, everyone with autism, regardless of their specific symptoms, is now described as having autism spectrum disorder.
If a child has symptoms of autism, they will be seen by a team of professionals, including a child psychologist or psychiatrist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, and child neurologist. The evaluation will include a medical history, physical exam, and testing of the child's social, language, and cognitive skills. Adults seeking a diagnosis will usually see a psychologist or psychiatrist.
High-functioning autism is not an official medical diagnosis and has many different definitions within the autism community. The problem with labeling a person with autism as high functioning, and thus closer to "normal" on the spectrum of functioning, is that the term may be misleading and undermine their need for support.
Individuals with Asperger syndrome (now encompassed within the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder) have normal cognitive abilities and language development, but they struggle with social communication and interaction.
Behavioral therapy is an umbrella term for different techniques used to change maladaptive or undesirable behaviors or skills. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the behavior therapy associated with autism. This therapy entails using reward-based training to teach desired behaviors that can help a child better manage school, home, and social experiences.
A developmental disability is a general term for a disorder that is present from early life and is associated with impairments in physical, learning, language, or behavior skills. Autism is a developmental disability or disorder.
This term used to be a catch-all diagnosis for children who met some, but not all, diagnostic criteria for Rett syndrome, fragile X, Asperger syndrome, or autism. Pervasive developmental disorder has been replaced by "autism spectrum disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Autism is a "spectrum disorder" because patients have a wide range of mild, moderate, or severe symptoms that affect social, communication, motor, and cognitive skills.
Autism Spectrum Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Revised March 2018.
American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. Philadelphia, PA: APA; May 27, 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Reviewed March 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Developmental Disabilities. Reviewed September 2019.