Signs, Symptoms, & Causes of Autism

The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from autism spectrum disorder, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Learn about autism spectrum disorder

Autism, now referred to as “autism spectrum disorders (ASDs)” is a group of serious, complex developmental disorders characterized by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Autism spectrum disorders include classical autism, Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. Classical autism is on the most severe side of the spectrum. Symptoms of autism are generally present by the age of three (often earlier) and while precise symptomatology does vary, all ASDs impair a child or teen’s ability to interact with others and engage in proper communication skills.

The number of children, teens, and adults now diagnosed with the disorder is on the rise. However, researchers are unsure if this increase is due to more accurate reporting and diagnostic procedures or if more people are actually developing the disorder. While autism is an incurable condition, with proper diagnosis coupled with intensive, early treatment can make a tremendous difference in the lives of children and teens with this disorder.


Autism spectrum disorder statistics

Studies show that in the United States, one out of every 88 children age 8 will have an ASD; a 78% increase in the past ten years. Reported frequencies in the United States and other countries indicate that about 1% of the population – including children, teens, and adults – have an autism spectrum disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for autism spectrum disorder in children and teens

Researchers into the field of ASDs believe that autism does not have one single root cause. As this is a particularly complex disorder and the symptom presentation does vary from person to person, it’s likely that autism is caused by a number of factors. It’s important to note that there has been no proven link between the development of autism and vaccination. It appears that both genetics and environmental factors may play a role in this disorder. Common causes and risk factors for autism include:

Genetics: Researchers believe that several genes are involved in autism. Some of these genes may make a child more susceptible to the disorder while others may affect brain development and the cells in the brain communicate. Other genes may determine the severity of the symptoms. While each problem in the genes accounts for a small number of cases, together the influence of genes is clearly substantial. While some genes appear to be inherited, others may occur spontaneously.

Environmental: Researchers are currently investigating environmental factors that may lead to autism. Currently, they are looking for the role viral infections may play, if complications during pregnancy may increase the likelihood, and the role of pollutants in the air and how they may trigger autism in some children and teens.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Certain medical conditions, such as fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, Rett syndrome, cerebral dysgenesis, and epilepsy
  • Advanced parental age during conception and pregnancy
  • Maternal prenatal medication use
  • Bleeding during pregnancy
  • Maternal gestational diabetes

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children and teens

Children and teens with autism often have problems in three areas of development: language, behaviors, and social interactions. Symptoms during childhood are often noted by parents or caregivers in the child’s first three years of life. During the teen years, behavioral patterns may change as the teen gains better coping and social skills.

Autism often has a very different pattern of symptoms depending upon the child or teen, which can delay both diagnosis and treatment. While many of these symptoms do vary, there are some common signs and symptoms of autism, including:

Social skills:

  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear when a person speaks to him or her
  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Resists being cuddled, hugged, or held
  • Fails to establish friendships with peers
  • No interest in sharing interests, enjoyment, or achievements with others
  • Lack of empathy – inability to understand another person’s feelings
  • Prefers playing alone
  • Difficulties understanding jokes or sarcasm
  • Often retreats into his or her own world
  • Doesn’t ask for help or request things

Language skills:

  • Doesn’t speak or has speech delays
  • Does not appear to understand simple directions or questions
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or form sentences
  • Doesn’t make eye contact when requesting something
  • Speaks in an abnormal rhythm or tone such as using a sing-song or monotone voice
  • Often repeats words verbatim but doesn’t appear to understand how to use them
  • Cannot initiate or maintain a conversation

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Moves constantly; cannot sit still
  • Difficulties learning
  • Engages in repetitive movements including rocking, hand-flapping, or spinning
  • Has specific rituals or routines and if these are disrupted, he or she becomes disturbed and upset
  • Unusually sensitive to light, touch, or sound while oblivious to pain
  • Does not engage in imaginative or imitative play
  • May be fascinated by details of an object such as spinning wheels on a truck instead of playing with the whole toy
  • Odd food preferences, such as eating only white foods, limited diet, and may crave and ingest non-food items, such as dirt or chalk
  • Preoccupation with certain topics
  • Wandering off or eloping from caregivers or parents (especially in early childhood)
  • Depression, anxiety (in teens)
  • Sleep disturbances


Effects of autism spectrum disorder in children and teens

The earlier that a comprehensive treatment plan is created for a child who has autism, the better he or she is able to adjust and learn necessary skills to lead a productive life. As the symptoms of autism may mimic other disorders or may be minor enough that a parent or guardian does not notice, diagnosis and treatment of autism may be delayed. Long-term effects of autism can include:

  • Social isolation
  • Familial discord
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships
  • Difficulties relating and empathizing with other people
  • Some may have trouble living independently while others are able to live and work on their own
  • Sleep problems

Co-Occurring Disorders

Autism spectrum disorder and co-occurring disorders

Many children and teens who have autism have mental health disorder. The most common comorbid, co-occurring disorders include:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Learning difficulties
  • Developmental coordination disorder