Autism is part of a range of developmental disorders known as autistic spectrum disorders. Autism begins in childhood and last through adulthood. It can cause problems and difficulties with social interaction, impaired language and communication skills and unusual patterns of thought and physical behaviour.
In England, it is estimated that 1 in every 100 children is affected by autistic spectrum disorder. The conditions are more common in boys than girls. Boys are three to four times more likely to develop an ASD than girls.
Symptoms of autism usually begin to show between 6 and 18 months. In babies, symptoms include:
- avoiding or having limited eye contact (gaze aversion)
- not following your gaze or not looking at objects that have been pointed out to them
- not having a happy expression when looking at people
- does not "babble" (respond in a back-and-forth manner when you talk to them)
- does not recognise or respond to their parents’ voices, yet is aware of other sounds
- shows little interest in drawing your attention to things by pointing to them or pulling your hand towards them
- rarely or never makes gestures such as pointing or waving.
The signs and symptoms of autism usually become more apparent as the child gets older. Problems with language will become more noticeable - the child's speech development may be delayed or they may not speak at all. It is likely that the child will begin to have difficulty interacting socially. They will also show unusual patterns of behaviour.
Children with autism can often appear to look straight through someone. They can have little or no awareness of other people. For example, they may have little interest in other children of the same age, or taking part in shared activities.
Children with autism can develop stereotypies which are a repetitive pattern of physical behaviour and include:
- flicking their fingers
- flapping their hands
- rocking back and forth
- persistent and unexplained sniffing
- licking objects.
There is currently no cure for autism. However, a wide range of treatments, including specialist education and behavioural programmes, can help improve symptoms. These include:
Applied behavioural analysis (ABA)
Breaking down skills (such as communication and cognitive skills) into small tasks, and then teaching those tasks in a highly structured way. ABA also rewards and reinforces positive behaviour while discouraging and redirecting inappropriate behaviour
A type of educational intervention that places great emphasis on structured learning by using visual prompts. Research has found that children with autism often respond better to information that is presented visually.
Speech and language therapy
A type of skills training designed to improve the child's language skills. This can improve their ability to interact with others socially.
No medication is available to treat the core symptoms of autism, but medication may be able to treat some of the related symptoms. These include antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), melatonin or other prescribed medication to help sleep and stimulant medication such as methylphenidate for young people who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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