Patient and family education is important to us. Here you can learn more about autism spectrum disorders in children, and view trusted insights from KidsHealth.org, the No. 1 most viewed health site for children, created by the experts at Nemours. We've also provided information from the most respected nonprofit organizations.
About Autism in Children
Autism — whether mild or severe — is a lifelong condition and your child may need medication, therapy or support throughout his or her life. Thankfully today, unlike only a few decades ago, autism specialists can offer many interventions and therapies that can remarkably increase your child’s skills and abilities. The next few decades (and even the next few years) show great promise of more to come.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it’s a condition related to the improper development of the neurons in the brain.
Children with an autism spectrum disorder develop “unevenly” and have difficulties in communication and social interactions and exhibit repetitive or restrictive behaviors. Very often, these children have exceptional strengths in other areas, such as math, visual processing and musical and artistic abilities (to name a few). Autism spectrum disorder is an active area of research — every day we’re uncovering important information about the disorder.
Traditional Types of Autism
Autism has had many names, including:
- autistic disorder (or autism) — refers to the more severe cases in which children have difficulty communicating and interacting with others (or they may be unable to communicate), and also exhibit unique repetitive/restrictive behaviors such as hand flapping, spinning or rocking.
- Asperger syndrome (AS, also called Asperger’s) — a milder form of autism in which children have average or above-average intelligence, impaired language skills only in some areas (like language pragmatics, or understanding the meaning of words in certain situations), impaired social skills (problems with reciprocity, or the natural “give and take” that occurs in a conversation) and repetitive/restrictive behaviors, sometimes related to a special interest.
- pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) — Because there are many variations within the autism spectrum — with no two children experiencing the same symptoms or patterns of behavior — today we refer to all types of autism as “autism spectrum disorder” regardless of how mild or severe symptoms may be.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder. And while there are many theories about the causes of autism spectrum disorder in children, large research studies show vaccinations do not increase the risk for the disorder. Other studies show that genes may play a role, and possibly prenatal illness or infections, but it is not caused by anything a mother did, or did not do, during pregnancy. What’s more, autism is not a result of a child’s upbringing, amount of nurturing or environment at home. The cause of autism development disorder continues to be a very active area of study.
Children with an autism spectrum disorder exhibit behavioral symptoms in specific areas, with different degrees of severity, and at different ages or life stages. Some symptoms include:
- delayed babbling or speaking
- does not speak, or is “nonverbal” (but may be able to communicate using pictures or assistive technologies)
- problems understanding the meaning of words
- difficulty starting and sustaining (continuing) conversation
- can only talk about a special interest (no “small talk”)
- does not understand tone, body language or facial expressions
- interprets words literally (may not understand statements like “it’s raining cats and dogs”)
- may speak in a different tone (monotone or high-pitched)
Impaired Social Interaction
- does not engage in interactions or imitation (smiling back or responding to name)
- reduced interest in people
- lack of eye contact
- difficulty making and keeping friends
- difficulty playing games or working in groups (has own rules or way of playing)
- responds to things differently (laughs when it’s serious or cries when it’s not)
- hard time understanding how people think or feel (difficulty with or lack of empathy)
- difficulty seeing other people’s perspective
- difficulty regulating emotions (tantrums when overloaded)
- repeats words over and over
- upset when a routine is disrupted or changed
- hand-flapping, rocking or spinning
- uses toys differently (repeatedly lines items up, spins wheels on vehicles, opens and shuts/turns things on and off)
- intense fixation with details, particularly related to a special interest
Sensory Processing Difficulties
Some children may be easily overloaded by too much — or too little — sensory input. For example, children with an autism spectrum disorder may:
- react adversely to itchy clothing (tags or seams)
- dislike loud noises (vacuum cleaner, school bell, etc.)
- avoid bright lights (particularly flickering of fluorescent lighting)
- avoid being touched or hugged (or conversely, need more touch)
From Nemours' KidsHealth
- Disciplining Your Child With Special Needs
- Occupational Therapy
- Delayed Speech or Language Development
- A to Z: Autism
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Does My Toddler Have a Language Delay?
- Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias
- Camps for Kids With Special Needs
- Relaxation Techniques for Children With Serious Illness
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
- Sleep Problems in Teens
- Sending Your Child With Special Needs to Camp
- Speech-Language Therapy
- Raising a Child With Autism: Paige and Iain's Story
- Autism Special Needs Factsheet
- Is There a Connection Between Vaccines and Autism?
- Asperger Syndrome
- Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions
- Brain and Nervous System
- What Is ADHD?
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Trusted External Resources
- The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children, by Dr. Glenn I. Latham
- Educate Toward Recovery: Turning the Tables on Autism, by MA BCBA Robert Schramm
- Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For A Cure, by Paul A. Offit, MD
Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions
Since your child's miraculous entry into the world, you've been responsible for most — if not all — of the decisions made regarding his or her health care. You scheduled the early-morning doctor's visits, arranged for X-rays and other diagnostic tests, ordered prescriptions from pharmacies, asked the right questions, and usually got the answers you needed.
As the parent of a preteen or a teen, your job's not over yet. But by now, your child is able to grasp medical concepts and understand the basics of managing his or her own health care. Experts say that now's the time to start including teens in health care decisions and let them take a more active role in managing their own care.
Why Include Teens?
Time flies. Before you know it, your 13-year-old will be driving and your 16-year-old will be off at college. With adulthood just around the corner, now is the time to begin encouraging teens to take on more responsibility for managing their own lives — and their health care is part of that.
By encouraging their participation (which can be as simple as calling in a prescription and picking it up at the pharmacy or as complex as helping choose a new care provider), you'll help your teens learn valuable lessons about planning in advance, making choices, and being held accountable for themselves. These are all skills that will aid them in adulthood.
As the parent of any preteen or teen knows, giving kids new responsibilities doesn't necessarily mean that they'll follow through on them. It's still up to you to encourage, remind, reinforce, and follow up on the responsibilities you've given your child.
As kids get older, it's especially important for those with chronic conditions, like asthma or diabetes, to become more knowledgeable about their illnesses and self-reliant when it comes to medical care.
Kids with special needs and developmental disabilities can also learn to manage some (or many) aspects of their care. It often helps to get the green light first from a doctor, social worker, or other medical professional on how and when to begin transitioning your child into more independent living.
Recommended Age-Appropriate Guidelines
At around age 12:
- Explain any medical conditions in age-appropriate language that your kids can understand, then have them paraphrase it back to you. This helps kids learn about their diagnoses.
- Encourage kids to spend time alone with medical professionals (without you in the room). This helps establish trust within the patient-provider relationship, and allows kids to speak candidly and ask questions they might be too fearful or embarrassed to ask in your presence.
- Have your kids learn what medications they take and why. If a child has any allergic reactions to medicines, like penicillin, now's the time to share that information.
- Kids who have a chronic condition should know who to contact for medical equipment or supplies that might be needed.
At around age 14, in addition to the previous list, teens should:
- Know any personal history of major medical conditions, hospitalizations, operations, or treatments.
- Be aware of family medical history (for example, does diabetes or heart disease run in the family? Did someone die of cancer?).
- Have the contact information for all current and previous doctors.
- Know how to fill a prescription and refill a prescription.
- Have a current list of medicines and dosages.
At around age 17, in addition to the previous lists, teens should:
- Look into selecting an adult primary care doctor. Often, kids choose to visit the family doctor that their parents visit.
- Have or know where to get copies of medical records (for example: from school or the doctor's office).
- Know their health insurance information and how to contact a representative.
- Know how to get referrals to specialists, if needed.
- Know the limitations of health insurance coverage once they reach adulthood.
- Plan ahead for medical coverage as an independent once parents' coverage expires for dependents.
- If necessary, meet with the local Social Security office to apply for benefits.
Considerations for Kids With Special Needs
Kids with special needs or chronic conditions may need additional support to transition into adult-based health care. If your child has special health needs, consider contacting the local chapter of your child's diagnosis-specific group (for example, the National Association for Down Syndrome) to learn how other parents have helped their kids become more independent in adulthood.
Families who've already gone through this transition can offer a wealth of information, such as which doctors specialize in treating adults with special needs, what special services are available, and what programs to look into or avoid.
Another resource that might be helpful are family advocacy groups. Many dedicate themselves to helping families of kids with special health care needs. For example, the nationwide Family Voices organization has local chapters that can help families make informed decisions about health care for kids with special needs.
Now is also a good time to talk to a social worker in your area (who may be affiliated with your local hospital) to find out what federal or state-run programs your child might be eligible for in adulthood. In addition to health-related services, some of these offerings might include support for finding employment, housing, and transportation.
In some cases, you might be able to enroll your child (or at least get on the waiting list) in these programs now. Doing so might seem a bit premature, but can pay off later, when the need for services might be more immediate.
Leading the Way
Whenever possible, involve your kids in making health care decisions. Though it might take some extra effort and a bit of patience on your part at first, your kids can become more independent when managing their own health care.
With you there to provide support and guidance along the way, your kids can take that first big leap into adulthood while still having you as a safety net.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 22, 2016