What is Autism?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Autism is not a single disease entity. It is part of a range of developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). They begin in childhood and last through adulthood.

There is currently no cure for ASD. Treatment these days includes a wide range of specialist education and behavioural programmes that can help improve symptoms.

Symptoms of autism

ASD has a wide variety of manifestations. These can be categorized into three broad groups.

  1. Problems with social interactions. The affected children may have difficulty understanding the emotions and feelings of others
  2. Problems with language and communication skills – This may manifest as delayed language development and difficulty in starting conversations
  3. Unusual behaviors and patterns of thoughts – this could include repetitive movements and activities and the child getting upset if routines are altered.

Incidence of autism

In England it is estimated that 1 in every 100 children has an ASD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ASDs occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, but are almost five times more common among boys than among girls. CDC estimates that about 1 in 88 children is identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Over the last two decades the number of cases of autism are seemingly on the rise. This may not mean that the condition is becoming more widespread. Some experts argue that the rise in diagnosed cases may be due to health professionals getting better at diagnosing cases correctly. Earlier children with autism would be missed commonly and they were merely labelled “painfully shy” or “slow”.

Autism myths

Autism has also been linked to administration of the MMR vaccine (against Measles, Mumps and Rubella). Extensive studies have disproved this myth. In 2009, the National Autism Society, released a statement supporting the claim that there is no link between MMR and ASD.

Yet another myth existed that a compound containing mercury called thiomersal, which is used as a preservative in some vaccines could be linked to ASD. Thiomersal has been extensively studied and no evidence of a link to ASD has been found. Furthermore, thiomersal was removed from vaccines in the US after 1999, yet the rates of ASD have continued to rise.

Types of ASD

Being a range of disorders autism includes a wide variety of disorders of varying severity. Some of the types of ASD include:

  • Autistic disorder, sometimes known as "classic autism". This manifests as significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors. There may be additional intellectual disability as well.
  • Asperger syndrome – Symptoms are milder than classic autism. There are social challenges and unusual behaviors. There may be typically no language problems or intellectual disability.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), also known as "atypical autism" – these individuals meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all. Symptoms may be fewer and milder. There may be social and communication challenges.

Other disorders

Children with ASD may concomitantly also have other problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette's syndrome or other tic disorders, dyspraxia (developmental co-ordination disorder), epilepsies etc.

Prognosis or outcome of ASD

Those with mild to moderate impairments who have average or above-average intelligence often grow up to be independent adults with jobs, long-term relationships and children. However, those with below-average intelligence are likely to find it difficult to live independently as adults and may need additional care and assistance.

Reviewed by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 22, 2013

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