What is Autism? What Causes Autism?


What is Autism - ribbon

Autism is known as a complex developmental disability. Experts believe that Autism presents itself during the first three years of a person’s life. The condition is the result of a neurological disorder that has an effect on normal brain function, affecting development of the person’s communication and social interaction skills.

People with autism have issues with non-verbal communication, a wide range of social interactions, and activities that include an element of play and/or banter.

Genomic research is beginning to discover that people with autism spectrum disorders probably share genetic traits with individuals with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or clinical depression. A team at the Cross Disorders Group of the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium suggests that the five mental disorders and illnesses have the same common inherited genetic variations.

What is ASD?

ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and can sometimes be referred to as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In this text Autism and ASD mean the same. ASDs are any developmental disabilities that have been caused by a brain abnormality. A person with an ASD typically has difficulty with social and communication skills.

A person with ASD will typically also prefer to stick to a set of behaviors and will resist any major (and many minor) changes to daily activities. Several relatives and friends of people with ASDs have commented that if the person knows a change is coming in advance, and has time to prepare for it; the resistance to the change is either gone completely or is much lower.

Autism is a wide-spectrum disorder

Autism (or ASD) is a wide-spectrum disorder. This means that no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms. As well as experiencing varying combinations of symptoms, some people will have mild symptoms while others will have severe ones. Below is a list of the most commonly found characteristics identified among people with an ASD.

Social skills

The way in which a person with an ASD interacts with another individual is quite different compared to how the rest of the population behaves. If the symptoms are not severe, the person with ASD may seem socially clumsy, sometimes offensive in his/her comments, or out of synch with everyone else. If the symptoms are more severe, the person may seem not to be interested in other people at all.

Child hiding his face

It is common for relatives, friends and people who interact with someone with an ASD to comment that the ASD sufferer makes very little eye contact. However, as health care professionals, teachers and others are improving their ability to detect signs of autism at an earlier age than before, eye contact among people with autism is improving. In many cases, if the symptoms are not severe, the person can be taught that eye contact is important for most people and he/she will remember to look people in the eye.

A person with autism may often miss the cues we give each other when we want to catch somebody’s attention. The person with ASD might not know that somebody is trying to talk to them. They may also be very interested in talking to a particular person or group of people, but does not have the same skills as others to become fully involved. To put it more simply, they lack the necessary playing and talking skills.

Empathy – Understanding and being aware of the feelings of others

A person with autism will find it much harder to understand the feelings of other people. His/her ability to instinctively empathize with others is much weaker than other people’s. However, if they are frequently reminded of this, the ability to take other people’s feelings into account improves tremendously. In some cases – as a result of frequent practice – empathy does improve, and some of it becomes natural rather than intellectual. Even so, empathy never comes as naturally for a person with autism as it does to others.

Having a conversation with a person with autism may feel very much like a one-way trip. The person with ASD might give the impression that he is talking at people, rather than with or to them. He may love a theme, and talk about it a lot. However, there will be much less exchanging of ideas, thoughts, and feelings than there might be in a conversation with a person who does not have autism.

Almost everybody on this planet prefers to talk about himself/herself more than other people; it is human nature. The person with autism will usually do so even more.

Physical contact

Hands making contact

A number of children with an ASD do not like cuddling or being touched like other children do. It is wrong to say that all children with autism are like that. Many will hug a relative – usually the mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, teacher, and or sibling(s) – and enjoy it greatly. Often it is a question of practice and anticipating that physical contact is going to happen. For example, if a child suddenly tickles another child’s feet, he will most likely giggle and become excited and happy. If that child were to tickle the feet of a child with autism, without that child anticipating the contact, the result might be completely different.

Loud noises, some smells, and lights

Alarm clock - loud noise

A person with autism usually finds sudden loud noises unpleasant and quite shocking. The same can happen with some smells and sudden changes in the intensity of lighting and ambient temperature.

Many believe it is not so much the actual noise, smell or light, but rather the surprise, and not being able to prepare for it – similar to the response to surprising physical contact.

If the person with autism knows something is going to happen, he can cope with it much better. Even knowing that something ‘might’ happen, and being reminded of it, helps a lot.


The higher the severity of the autism, the more affected are a person’s speaking skills. Many children with an ASD do not speak at all. People with autism will often repeat words or phrases they hear – an event called echolalia.

The speech of a person with ASD may sound much more formal and woody, compared to other people’s speech. Teenagers with Asperger’s Syndrome can sometimes sound like young professors. Their intonation may sound flat.

Repetitive behaviors

A person with autism likes predictability. Routine is his/her best friend. Going through the motions again and again is very much part of his/her life. To others, these repetitive behaviors may seem like bizarre rites. The repetitive behavior could be a simple hop-skip-jump from one end of the room to the other, repeated again and again for one, five, or ten minutes – or even longer. Another could be drawing the same picture again and again, page after page.

Repetitive photo

People without autism are much more adaptable to changes in procedure. A child without autism may be quite happy to first have a bath, then brush his teeth, and then put on his pajamas before going to bed – even though he usually brushes his teeth first. For a child with autism this change, bath first and then teeth, could completely put him/her out, and they may become very upset. Some people believe that helping a child with autism learn how to cope better with change is a good thing, however, forcing them to accept change like others do could adversely affect their quality of life.

A child with autism develops differently

While a child without autism will develop in many areas at a relatively harmonious rate, this may not be the case for a child with autism. His/her cognitive skills may develop fast, while their social and language skills trail behind. On the other hand, his/her language skills may develop rapidly while their motor skills don’t. They may not be able to catch a ball as well as the other children, but could have a much larger vocabulary. Nonetheless, the social skills of a person with autism will not develop at the same pace as other people’s.

Learning may be unpredictable

How quickly a child with autism learns things can be unpredictable. They may learn something much faster than other children, such as how to read long words, only to forget them completely later on. They may learn how to do something the hard way before they learn how to do it the easy way.

Physical tics and stimming

It is not uncommon for people with autism to have tics. These are usually physical movements that can be jerky. Some tics can be quite complicated and can go on for a very long time. A number of people with autism are able to control when they happen, others are not. People with ASD who do have tics often say that they have to be expressed, otherwise the urge does not stop. For many, going through the tics is enjoyable, and they have a preferred spot where they do them – usually somewhere private and spacious. When parents first see these tics, especially the convoluted ones, they may experience shock and worry.


People with autism often have obsessions.

Myths about autism

A person with autism feels love, happiness, sadness and pain just like everyone else. Just because some of them may not express their feelings in the same way others do, does not mean at all that they do not have feelings – THEY DO!! It is crucial that the Myth – Autistic people have no feelings – is destroyed. The myth is a result of ignorance, not some conspiracy. Therefore, it is important that you educate people who carry this myth in a helpful and informative way.

Not all people with autism have an incredible gift or savantism for numbers or music.However, a sizeable proportion of people with an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) have high IQs and a unique talent for computer science. German software company SAP AG has become aware of this and announced in May 2013 that it planned to employ hundreds of people with autism as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

The benefits of early intervention for kids with an ASD

Children with an ASD who received early intervention tend to have better brain function, communication skills and overall social behavior compared to ASD children with no early intervention, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine reported in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder (November 2012 issue).

They added that the brains of kids with autism appear to respond well to “pivotal response treatment” if it is provided early on. The program, which requires parental involvement as well as “play” situations, was created specifically for children with autism.

The new technique incorporates learning and development factors which are easy to use with very young children.

Researchers closing in on gene mutations linked to autism

A mutation in the gene that encodes a protein, SynGAP1, severely disrupts how the developing brain circuits organize themselves during a human’s first years of life.

Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute reported in the journal Cell (November 2012 issue) that they are discovering how genetic mutations can be responsible for the behavioral and cognitive problems found in people with an ASD.

SynGAP1 is estimated to cause disabilities in about 1 million people around the world. It is known to be directly involved in raising autism risk.

The authors explained that genetic mutations that cause ASDs generally affect synapses. A significant proportion of children with severe behavioral and intellectual impairments are believed to carry singly mutations in key neurodevelopmental genes.

Head researcher, Prof. Gavin Rumbaugh, said “In this study, we did something no one else had done before. Using an animal model, we looked at a mutation known to cause intellectual disability and showed for the first time a causative link between abnormal synapse maturation during brain development and life-long cognitive disruptions commonly seen in adults with a neurodevelopmental disorder. There are a few genes that can’t be altered without affecting normal cognitive abilities. SynGAP1 is one of the most important genes in cognition – so far, every time a mutation that disrupts the function of SynGAP1 has been found, that individual’s brain simply could not develop correctly. It regulates the development of synaptic function like no other gene I’ve seen.”

Flu and persistent fever during pregnancy raise autism risk

If a pregnant woman gets the flu or has a fever that persists for more than one week, there is a greater chance that her offspring will be diagnosed with an ASD by the age of three, researchers from the University of Aarhus, Denmark, reported in the journal Pediatrics (November, 12th, 2012 issue).

The scientists examined data on 96,736 children in Denmark from 1997 to 2003. They found that non-flu respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, genital infections, colds and sinus infections during pregnancy were not associated with a higher risk of autism for the baby.

However, the following illnesses and circumstances did increase the risk of the child later on being diagnosed with an ASD:

  • Influenza during pregnancy – doubles autism risk for the child
  • Persistent fever during pregnancy – that lasted for at least one week triples autism risk for the child
  • Antibiotic usage during pregnancy – slightly raises autism risk for the child

Head researcher, Hjordis Osk Atladottir, MD, PhD, emphasized that autism risk for pregnant mothers who catch the flu or those with a persistent fever should not be alarmed – 98% of those who did become ill in their study went on to give birth to “healthy” babies who never developed an ASD.

Brain’s chemistry develops differently in children with an ASD

Certain chemicals in the brains of children between 3 and 10 years of age with an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) develop differently compared to those with idiopathic (of unknown cause) developmental disorders.

Researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle, wrote in JAMA Psychiatry that creatine, choline and N-acetylaspartate, chemicals found in the brain’s gray matter, develop at different rates among children with an ASD.

The authors wrote “The results from our study suggest that a dynamic brain developmental process underlies autism spectrum disorder, whereas the children with developmental disorder exhibited a different, more static developmental pattern of brain chemical changes.”

The scientists found that among 3 to 4 year-old children with an ASD the pattern of chemical changes within the brain was similar to those detected in patients with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury. For example, in multiple sclerosis levels of N-acetylaspartate are low when symptoms first appear.

Recent research on links to autism risk

Parents with bipolar disorder or schizophreniaa child whose parent, brother, or sister has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia has a higher risk of being diagnosed with an ASD, scientists from The University of North Carolina reported in Archives of General Psychiatry (July 2012).

Older fathersif the father is older during conception, there is a greater risk of autism for the baby. Scientists explained in the journal Nature that an older father has a greater chance of passing on new mutations to his babies than older mothers.

Immune system irregularities – Caltech (California Institute of Technology) researchers reported in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) (July 2012) that certain changes in an overactive immune system can contribute to autism-like behaviors in mice. In some cases, this activation may be related to how a fetus develops while in the womb.

Specific gene mutations – scientists from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found new gene mutations which were linked to the development of autism, epilepsy, hydrocephalus and cancer. The mutations were in the following genes – AKT3, PIK3R2 and PIK3CA. Their study was published in Nature Genetics (July 2012).

Air traffic pollution during pregnancy and autism linkif a pregnant mother is exposed to air traffic pollution during her pregnancy, the risk of autism in her offspring is greater, researchers from the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles reported in Archives of General Psychiatry (November 2012 issue).

The investigators wrote “Exposures to traffic-related air pollution, PM (particulate matter) and nitrogen dioxide were associated with an increased risk of autism. These effects were observed using measures of air pollution with variation on both local and regional levels, suggesting the need for further study to understand both individual pollutant contributions and the effects of pollutant mixtures on disease.”

Disclaimer: This informational section on Medical News Today is regularly reviewed and updated, and provided for general information purposes only. The materials contained within this guide do not constitute medical or pharmaceutical advice, which should be sought from qualified medical and pharmaceutical advisers.

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