Autism: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatments, Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 15 April 2021

Table of Contents:

  1. What Is Autism?
  2. Autism Signs and Symptoms
  3. Autism Causes
  4. Autism Diagnosis
  5. Well-Child Visits
  6. Other Tests
  7. Autism Treatment
  8. Autism Prevention




What Is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex syndrome characterised by speech and behavioural difficulties. It can present with a wide range of symptoms and abilities. ASD may be a mild problem or a serious disorder requiring inpatient care. ASD expresses itself differently in different people. It is a form of developmental disorder that has an effect on how people communicate, behave, and interact with each other. There is no single cause, and the symptoms can be mild to severe.

For those with autism, connecting is challenging. They struggle to understand what other people are thinking and doing. This makes communication difficult for them, whether by words, gestures, facial expressions, or physical contact.

Learning disabilities can be a problem for autistic people. Their abilities can develop in a random order. For instance, they can have difficulty communicating but excel at painting, music, mathematics, or memory. As a result, they excel at analytical and problem-solving studies.

Autism is now being identified in greater numbers than ever before. However, the more recent figures may be higher due to changes in how the condition is diagnosed, not that more children have it.

Some children on the autism spectrum exhibit symptoms as early as a few months of age. Others appear to grow normally for the first few months or years of their lives, then begin to exhibit symptoms.

However, up to half of parents of children with ASD reported problems by the time their child was 12 months old, and between 80% and 90% noticed problems by the time their child was 2 years old. Children with ASD may have symptoms for the rest of their lives, but they will improve as they get older.

The autism spectrum disorder is extremely wide. Some people may have obvious problems, while others may not. The common factor is differences in social skills, communication, and attitudes as compared to non-spectrum individuals.


Autism Signs and Symptoms

Autism symptoms normally begin before a child reaches the age of three. Some people exhibit symptoms from birth.

Autism is characterised by the following symptoms:

  • A lack of eye contact
  • A small range of interests or intense interest in only a certain topics
  • Repetitive behaviour – Doing something over and over, like repeating words or phrases, rocking back and forth, or flipping a lever
  • High sensitivity to sounds, touches, smells, or sights that seem normal to other people
  • Avoiding eye contact or listening to other people
  • Not looking at things when another person points at them
  • Not wanting to be held or cuddled
  • Problems understanding or using speech, gestures, facial expressions, or tone of voice
  • Talking in a sing-song, flat, or robotic voice
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine

Seizures can occur in some autistic children. It’s possible that they won’t begin until puberty.

The earlier autism spectrum disorder therapy starts, the more likely it will be successful. That is why it is important to understand how to recognise the signs and symptoms.

Have an appointment with your child’s paediatrician if he or she does not reach these developmental milestones, or if they do but then lose them:

  • Smiles by 6 months
  • Imitates facial expressions or sounds by 9 months
  • Coos or babbles by 12 months
  • Gestures (points or waves) by 14 months
  • By 16 months, he or she is speaking in single sentences, and by 24 months, he or she is speaking in phrases of two or more words.
  • Plays pretend or “make-believe” by 18 months

Autism Causes

The precise cause of autism is unknown. It may be caused by abnormalities in the areas of your brain responsible for sensory perception and language processing.

Boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls. It may affect people of any race, ethnic origin, or socioeconomic status. Income, lifestyle, or educational attainment have no effect on a child’s risk of autism.

Since autism runs in families, some genetic variants can increase a child’s risk.

A child who has an older parent is at a greater risk of developing autism..

Pregnant women exposed to certain substances or chemicals, such as alcohol or anti-seizure medications, have a higher risk of having autistic children. Additionally, maternal metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity are risk factors. Additionally, research has related autism to untreated phenylketonuria (a.k.a. PKU, a metabolic condition caused by an enzyme deficiency) and rubella (German measles).

There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.

Autism Diagnosis 

Early diagnosis will make a significant difference in the lives of children and families affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

However, diagnosing an ASD is not always easy. Since there is no laboratory test for it, doctors must rely on studying the actions of very young children and listening to their parents’ concerns.

The symptoms of ASD are extremely varied. Any individuals who are “on the spectrum" suffer from serious mental illnesses. Others are extremely intelligent and capable of living on their own.

Having an autism diagnosis for your child, regardless of where he or she falls on the spectrum, is a two-step procedure that begins with a paediatrician.

  1. Well-Child Visits

The first step in the autism diagnosis process is to meet a pediatrician. Even if they don’t seem to have any signs, every child gets an evaluation at their 18- and 24-month checkups to make sure they’re on track.

Your child’s paediatrician will observe and converse with him or her during these appointments. They’ll inquire about your child’s growth and behaviour, as well as your family’s background (to see whether someone in the family is on the spectrum).

The following are some of the milestones that your doctor will be looking for:

  • Did your baby smile by the time he or she was six months old?
  • By 9 months, had they picked up on sounds and facial expressions?
  • Were they babbling and cooing by the time they were a year old?

They’ll also ask about the following:

  • Is there something odd or repetitive in their actions?
  • Is it difficult for them to make eye contact?
  • Do they socialise and share their experiences?
  • When anyone tries to get their attention, do they respond?
  • Is their voice tone “flat"?
  • Can they comprehend the actions of behaviours of others?
  • Are they sensitive to light, noise, or temperature?
  • Do they have any sleep or digestive issues?
  • Do they get irritated or angry easily?

Your answers are crucial in the screening of your infant. If all works out and you have no reservations, that’s it. However, if your child exhibits developmental issues or your doctor has questions, they will refer you to a specialist for further testing.

  1. Other Tests

If your child requires further testing, your next appointment would most probably be with a multidisciplinary team of ASD professionals, including a child psychologist, a speech-language pathologist, and an occupational therapist. Additionally, you can see a developmental paediatrician and a neurologist.

This test is typically used to determine your child’s cognitive level, language ability, and other life skills such as feeding, dressing, and toileting.

To receive an official diagnosis, your child must meet the criteria outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

To be classified as autistic, the child must exhibit symptoms in at least two categories.

  • Challenges with communication and social interaction. It’s difficult for children with ASD to “connect" with or anticipate the responses of others, read social signals, maintain eye contact, or carry on a conversation. They might not begin speaking at the same age as other children. They can also struggle with the motor skills needed for activities such as sports, drawing, and writing.
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. Children with ASD can rock their bodies, repeat phrases, or become agitated when their routines are disrupted. They are often obsessive about a specific subject. Additionally, they have sensory problems.

Additionally, your child’s doctor can suggest genetic testing to rule out any other possible causes of these symptoms.

Autism Treatment

Autism has no known treatment. However, for a child with autism, early therapy may make a significant difference in their development. If you suspect your child has ASD, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

What is effective for one individual may not be effective for another. Your doctor should create a treatment plan specifically for you or your child. There are two styles of therapies:

  • Behavioral and communication therapy to aid in organisation and structure One of these therapies is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which encourages constructive behaviour while discouraging negative behaviour. Occupational therapy may assist with everyday tasks such as dressing, sleeping, and interacting with others. Sensory integration therapy can benefit someone who has issues with being touched, seeing, or hearing. Speech therapy helps people develop their communication skills.
  • Medications to treat ASD symptoms such as hyperactivity, anxiety, and concentration issues.

Before attempting something new, such as a special diet, consult your doctor.


Autism Prevention

Doctors aren’t sure what causes autism, but they think genes play a significant role in whether or not a child is born with it.

Doctors also state that in rare circumstances, if the mother was exposed to certain contaminants while pregnant, the baby may be born with birth defects. However, doctors can’t tell whether your kid would have autism when you’re pregnant.

Although you can’t avoid raising a kid with autism, you can improve your chances of having a healthy baby by making the following lifestyle changes:

Live healthy. Maintain a healthy lifestyle by getting routine checkups, eating well-balanced meals, and exercising. Make sure you have proper prenatal care and take all of the vitamins and nutrients that are prescribed.

Avoid any drugs when you’re pregnant. Before taking any drug, consult your doctor. This is particularly true of certain anti-seizure medications.

Avoid alcohol. When you are pregnant, avoid alcohol consumption.

Seek treatment for existing health conditions. If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease or PKU, follow your doctor’s recommendations for managing the condition.

Get vaccinated. Ensure that you receive the German measles (rubella) vaccine prior to becoming pregnant. It can help prevent autism caused by rubella.


Referenced on 12.4.2021

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics: Pediatrics 2010. 
  2. Parker, S., Zuckerman, B., and Augustyn, M. (editors). Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: A Handbook for Primary Care, Lippincott, 2005.
  3. American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5 (DSM-5).
  4. CDC: “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”
  5. National Institute of Mental Health: “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
  6. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica: “Advanced parental age and autism risk in children: a systematic review and meta-analysis.”
  7. Autism Speaks: “What Are the Symptoms of Autism?” “Treatments,” “Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).”
  8. CDC: “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”
  9. National Autism Association: “Signs of Autism.”
  10. Mayo Clinic: “Autism spectrum disorder.”
  11. Autism Speaks: “Symptoms.”
  12. Parker, S., Zuckerman, B., and Augustyn, M. (editors). Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: A Handbook for Primary Care, Lippincott, 2005.
  13. Autism Research Institute: “Minimizing Risks.”
  14. Mayo Clinic: “Autism Spectrum Disorder Prevention.”
  15. CDC. “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Screening and Diagnosis for Healthcare Providers.”
  16. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “How do healthcare providers diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?”
  17. National Institute of Mental Health. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
  18. Mayo Clinic. “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

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