What is Autism?


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that is characterized by impairments in social and communication skills and repetitive behavior.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimate that 1 child in 68 is diagnosed with autism. More than 2 million Americans currently live with autism – a number that may grow to 4 million within the next decade. Statistics indicate that the prevalence rate of autism is growing 10 to 17 percent every year. Autism knows no racial, ethnic or socioeconomic boundaries and is common in countries around the world. It is diagnosed four to five times more often in boys than girls; 1 in every 42 boys and 1 in every 189 girls are currently diagnosed with autism in the United States.

The following “red flags” may indicate your child is at risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. If your child exhibits any of the following, ask your pediatrician for an evaluation right away:

  • No big smiles or warm, joyful expressions by 6 months
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

The cause of autism is unknown. Current research indicates that there are probably multiple causes just as there are multiple symptoms and severity levels. Some causes may be purely genetic, some due to genetic predisposition in combination with environmental triggers, and some may be the result of environmental conditions alone. Several autism risk genes and genetic markers have been associated with autism. Ten environmental toxins that are known to impact brain development have been identified as likely contributing to autism, including lead, PCBs, pesticides, automotive exhaust, hydrocarbons, and flame retardants.

Many studies have now reported finding no causal relationship between vaccines and autism. Some recent findings relating to the risk for autism indicate that: 1) older parents, both moms and dads, increase risk; 2) certain birth complications, especially those that result in oxygen deprivation, increase risk; 3) taking prenatal vitamins during and just prior to pregnancy decreases risk; and, 4) babies with low birth weight are five times as likely to develop autism.

More than four decades of research strongly support the benefits of early and intensive behavior therapy on the learning and behavior of children with autism. Please see “What is ABA?” for additional information on evidence-based treatment.

For more information on diagnosis, intervention, research, tools, and the autism community, please visit the Autism Speaks website.

What They Say

“ACT nurtures its clients and therapists with care, compassion, and integrity. We are able to achieve our goals by having unlimited access to the supervising psychologist and the latest research in the field. Being with ACT allows me to fulfill the passion I feel for each one of the children I work with.”

Terynn F.