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What’s the Problem?

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of life-long developmental disabilities caused by an abnormality of the brain. ASDs are characterized by problems with social interaction and communication skills and by repetitive behaviors. People with ASD are not identified by physical features, and the range of impairment can be very mild to very severe. A few people with an ASD have unusual “savant” skills, though IQ levels range from profoundly deficient to gifted. The main indicator of ASDs is unusual social development.

Who’s at Risk?

It is not known how many children or adults in the United States currently have an ASD. Studies done in the U.S., Europe and Asia since 1985 indicate that there may be as many as 2 to 6 per 1000 children who have one of the ASDs. No one knows exactly what causes ASDs, but scientists think that both genetic and environmental factors play a role. We do know that parental actions do not cause them. Families of children with an ASD face many significant challenges and long-term support services are usually required. Special education services for a child with an ASD can be extremely expensive.

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Can It Be Prevented?

Although it is known that ASDs are the result of some abnormality in brain development, little is known about their cause. A great deal of attention has been paid to possible causes and cures for ASD, with little scientific evidence to support these theories. Research does indicate that early diagnosis and intensive intervention can help children gain skills for improved functioning and development. Although there is no available medication that can cure ASDs, some medications may relieve various behavioral and physiological symptoms associated with the disorders.

The Bottom Line

People with ASDs make up a diverse group of individuals who have unique challenges and strengths. Early identification and intervention are very important to help children with ASDs reach their full potential as adults. Parents and professionals need to be aware of the early signs of ASDs and work together.

Case Examples

  1. From the time their first child was about 9 months old, Sally and Jake have noticed something is wrong with him. He does not make eye contact with them, is not soothed by their efforts to comfort him and has not started to babble and play as he should. They visit health care providers to try to find answers. After repeatedly being told they are overly concerned first-time parents and that their son will grow out of it, they finally find a doctor who takes them seriously. At 20 months, their son is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. They are immediately referred to an early intervention program in their state and begin intensive work at home and at the school. They are told that their persistence in getting their child early intervention has probably contributed greatly to their son’s social, emotional and intellectual development.
  2. At 12, Megan is a pretty girl and a gifted musician. Her piano is her world she began playing Bach at age 3. Megan is average in her schoolwork and has very few friends, but her parents and teachers think this is just because she is an introspective young artist. When she enters middle school, however, her parents notice changes: she begins failing classes, seems depressed and becomes overly engrossed with her music. They visit Megan’s school counselor who suggests a series of developmental tests. The tests indicate that Megan has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. With the aid of therapy including social skills groups and other behavioral interventions, Megan begins to make progress in school and in social relationships, and it is likely she will transition into a productive, independent adult. When Megan’s diagnosis is made, Megan’s father becomes aware that he probably has a mild form of autism spectrum disorder himself.
  3. Soon after moving to a new town, Sonya and Dan’s 8-year old son, Chad, is referred for evaluations by his new doctor. Chad is diagnosed with autism. Sonya and Dan are furious with their hometown doctor, who treated Chad since he was born, for having missed all the early signs. They feel like they could have been doing so much more for him all these years, instead of just trying to convince themselves he would grow out of his odd behaviors and “catch up” with his peers. They call their hometown doctor to share their frustrations with him, and the doctor is shocked and feels guilty for not recognizing Chad’s condition. The doctor educates himself about the early signs of autism and contacts the American Academy of Pediatrics to find out about screening tools available for detecting developmental disabilities. Sonya and Dan agree to keep Chad’s first doctor informed about Chad’s progress to help further educate him about autism. A year later, they meet a family from their hometown at an autism conference and learn that Chad’s first doctor referred the family for further evaluations when they first expressed concerns.
  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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