Autism is a complex neurobehavioral disorder that includes impairments in social interaction and developmental language and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. The disorder covers a large spectrum of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment. It ranges in severity from a handicap that somewhat limits an otherwise normal life to a devastating disability that may require institutional care. Children with autism have trouble communicating. They have trouble understanding what other people think and feel. This makes it very hard for them to express themselves either with words or through gestures, facial expressions, and touch.
A child with autism who is very sensitive may be greatly troubled, sometimes even pained by sounds, touches, smells, or sights that seem normal to others. Children who are autistic may have repetitive, stereotyped body movements such as rocking, pacing, or hand flapping. They may have unusual responses to people, attachments to objects, resistance to change in their routines, or aggressive or self-injurious behavior. At times they may seem not to notice people, objects, or activities in their surroundings. Some children with autism may also develop seizures. And in some cases, those seizures may not occur until adolescence.
Many people with autism are cognitively impaired to some degree. In contrast to more typical cognitive impairment, which is characterized by relatively even delays in all areas of development, people with autism show uneven skill development. They may have problems in certain areas, especially the ability to communicate and relate to others. But they may have unusually developed skills in other areas, such as drawing, creating music, solving math problems, or memorizing facts. For this reason, they may test higher, perhaps even in the average or above-average range on nonverbal intelligence tests.
If autism is caught in infancy, treatment can take full advantage of the young brain’s remarkable plasticity. Although autism is hard to diagnose before 24 months, symptoms often surface between 12 and 18 months. If signs are detected by 18 months of age, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms. The earliest signs of autism involve the absence of normal behaviors, not the presence of abnormal ones, so they can be tough to spot. In some cases, the earliest symptoms of autism are even misinterpreted as signs of a good baby, since the infant may seem quiet, independent, and undemanding. However, you can catch warning signs early if you know what to look for.
Some autistic infants don’t respond to cuddling, reach out to be picked up, or look at their mothers when being fed. Some people have had concerns that ASD might be linked to the vaccines children receive, but studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing ASD. In 2011, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on eight vaccines given to children and adults found that with rare exceptions, these vaccines are very safe.
A 2013 CDC study added to the research showing that vaccines do not cause ASD. The study looked at the number of antigens (substances in vaccines that cause the body’s immune system to produce disease-fighting antibodies) from vaccines during the first two years of life. The results showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with ASD and those that did not have ASD.