Our knowledge of autism has come a long way in the past decade, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.

Unlike a condition like cerebral palsy that is usually due to an injury at birth, autism doesn’t have a definitive cause, or at least not one that we can pinpoint for sure.

There’s more attention on the topic right now because Elon Musk recently seemed to indicate on Saturday Night Live that has Asperger’s and it’s worth delving into a little more about what autism is, what it isn’t, and what we currently know.

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a very broad term, and it’s used to describe a set of neurodevelopmental disorders. Some of the defining features of autism include problems with social interactions and communication.

A person with autism might display repetitive behaviors or specific patterns of behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism does seem to be more prevalent among males than females. There’s evidence that ASD rates are increasing, but there’s debate as to whether this is the reality or if there are just more diagnoses.

The term autism spectrum disorder brings together conditions that were once separate, including Asperger’s syndrome, autism, and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Autism spectrum disorder begins in early childhood. A child will usually start to exhibit symptoms within the first year of life, but in rare cases, a child may develop normally and then regress between the ages of 18 and 24 months.

What Are the Symptoms of Autism?

Every child is different, and in some cases, a baby will start to show symptoms or signs of autism spectrum disorder in their early infancy. These signs might include a lack of response, indifference to caregivers, or limited eye contact.

Autism symptoms can range from low functioning to high functioning, and these terms indicate the severity.

A child or adult with an autism spectrum disorder might display symptoms like the following:

  • Not responding to his or her name
  • Seeming to not hear you talking sometimes
  • Resists cuddling or holding
  • Prefers playing alone
  • Doesn’t make eye contact
  • Has delayed speech
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone
  • Doesn’t understand simple directions
  • No expression of emotions
  • Doesn’t recognize non-verbal cues like voice tone or facial expressions

There are often patterns of behavior that are repetitive, or interests may be very limited.

For example, someone with autism spectrum disorder could do repetitive things like spinning or hand flapping, or they could develop rituals that, if they are interrupted is very upsetting to them.

A person might be fascinated by details of something in particular such as one component of a toy.

If a child has autism spectrum disorder, he or she might be sensitive to touch, light, and sound but may not notice temperature or pain.

In babies, it’s recommended that if you see certain signs of autism spectrum disorder, you speak to your doctor. That’s why milestones are so important at checkups.

For example, you should speak to your doctor if your baby doesn’t respond with a smile by six months or doesn’t mimic facial expressions or sounds by nine months.

Causes and Risk Factors

Autism spectrum disorder is complex, and there isn’t one specific cause or risk factor that’s currently identified. Doctors and researchers believe there are actually probably a number of factors that converge.

There are several genes thought to play a role in autism spectrum disorder.

In some children, it may be associated with a genetic disorder like Rett syndrome. In others, there may be genetic mutations that could increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder. Some of these genetic mutations can appear spontaneously while others might be inherited.

There is a lot of work going on right now looking at whether or not environmental factors could play a role, such as complications during pregnancy, medications, or viral infections. Air pollutants are also being studied in this capacity.

There was years ago a controversy that arose. There was a study where one researcher claimed a link between autism and vaccines. That has since been discredited, but it left some parents fearful of vaccines.

There has been a great deal of research, and so far none has found a link between autism spectrum disorder and vaccines.

Other risk factors may include:

  • Your child’s sex—as was mentioned, boys are more likely than girls to have autism spectrum disorder. In fact, they’re four times more likely.
  • A family history
  • Disorders like fragile X syndrome
  • Babies born before 26 weeks of gestation
  • Parents’ ages—there could be a connection between older parents and autism spectrum disorder, but more research is being done

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder

Pediatricians will specifically look for signs of developmental delays at your child’s regular appointments. If any red flags are identified you may be referred to a specialist who will do their own evaluation.

It’s difficult to diagnose autism definitely because there’s no one particular test.

If a child is diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder, there’s not one go-to treatment. Instead, the goal is to help improve your child’s functionality. This might mean supporting development, coming up with specialized learning plans, and reducing symptoms.

Doctors and specialists do believe that early intervention is important. Children who receive intervention during preschool do seem to show improvements in terms of their behavioral, social, and communication skills.

A treatment plan might include communication and behavioral therapy.

Educational therapies might be part of a larger treatment plan, as might family therapy so that parents and siblings can learn how to interact with their loved one who has autism spectrum disorder.

Some medications may be prescribed for specific symptoms. For example, antidepressants could be used for anxiety.

Autism is something we’ve learned a lot about in recent years, but there’s still a lot to know as well. There are many unknowns for doctors and parents, but research is ongoing to shed more light on autism spectrum disorder to provide the best possible treatments.