Health Library

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability. It can look different for each child. It can affect day-to-day life. Children with ASD have developmental differences in their communication, social interactions, and behavior.

ASD occurs in up to one in 44 children (or 23 per 1,000) in the United States. Males are four times more likely to have autism than females, with autism occurring in 36.5 per 1,000 males and 8.8 per 1,000 females. Symptoms of ASD can appear as early as 12-18 months of age.

What Causes Autism in Children?

The cause of ASD is not known. Scientists believe it is caused by both genetic and environmental factors. Vaccines do not cause autism. It is also not caused by parenting.

Signs of Autism in Children

Signs of ASD include difficulty with social-communication and having repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Some children with ASD have only a few characteristics. Other children may have many symptoms. It is common for children with ASD to have behavior challenges. These challenges may include tantrums, worries, or trouble focusing. Specific signs of ASD in children are:

  • Not making eye contact
  • Not responding to their name
  • Difficulty interacting socially with peers or making friends
  • Not pretending or socially playing
  • Repetitive or unusual movements such as hand-flapping or body rocking
  • Less use of gestures, such as pointing or waving
  • Repetitive or unusual language
  • Difficulty having a conversation with others
  • Unusual interests or fixations with certain objects or topics
  • Difficulty with changes in routine
  • Unusual response to sound, touch and taste. This can include trouble with loud sounds, not wanting to be touched, or dislike of certain textures of foods.
  • Sleep problems

There are several signs in young children that suggest they should be evaluated for autism. These include:

  • Lack of eye contact
  • No response to name being called
  • Lack of babbling between 6-12 months
  • Lack of pointing for communication by 12 months
  • Not saying any words by 18 months
  • Loss of language at any age

Treatment for Children with Autism

Treatment for autism may include one or more of the following:

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy for autism uses evidence-based techniques to decrease challenging behavior. These behaviors may include tantrums, aggression, destructive behavior, or self-harm. This therapy also helps with daily living skills like toilet-training, feeding problems, and sleep problems. It can also help treat anxiety and depression. Parents are very involved in the treatment process. They help with goal setting and using intervention strategies.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and language therapy for autism helps improve how children understand language (receptive language) and how they speak (expressive language), how clear their words are to others (sound production), and how they participate in conversation (pragmatic communication). We also use evidence-based treatment techniques for patients needing augmentative and alternative communication systems, such as communication devices.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

Occupational therapy for autism focuses on improving skills in daily activities such as feeding, self-care and play/educational activities. Occupational therapy also focuses on sensory processing and integration, emotional regulation, and motor skills. We create and start with goals that are important to families.

Group Therapy

We offer group therapy to patients and caregivers to address behavior concerns, social skills, anxiety, communication, and sensory processing. Goals, participation, and schedules will vary based on the group.

Web Resources on Autism

Last Updated 02/2022

Who treats this.

Learn about how the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders can improve the health, quality of life and outcomes for children and adolescents.