What is Autism?
Autism is classified as one of the pervasive developmental disorders of the brain. It is not a disease. People with classical autism show three types of symptoms: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual or severely limited activities and interests.
These symptoms can vary in severity. In addition, people with autism often have abnormal responses to sounds, touch, or other sensory stimulation. Symptoms usually appear during the first three years of childhood and continue through life.
Recent studies strongly suggest that some people have a genetic predisposition to autism. Researchers are looking for clues about which genes contribute to this increased susceptibility. In some children, environmental factors also may play a role.
Studies of people with autism have found abnormalities in several regions of the brain which suggest that autism results from a disruption of early fetal brain development.
Autism affects an estimated 10 to 20 of every 10,000 people, depending on diagnostic criteria used, and strikes males about four times more often than females.
Is there any treatment?
There is currently no cure for autism, but appropriate treatment may foster relatively normal development and reduce undesirable behaviors. Educational/behavioral therapies and drug interventions are designed to remedy specific symptoms.
Educational/behavioral therapies emphasize highly structured and often intensive skill-oriented training. Doctors also may prescribe a variety of drugs to reduce symptoms of autism. Other interventions are available, but few, if any, scientific studies support their use.
What is the prognosis?
People with autism have normal life expectancies. Symptoms in many children improve with intervention or as the children age. Some people with autism eventually lead normal or near-normal lives.
Adolescence can worsen behavior problems in some children, and parents should be ready to adjust treatment for the child’s changing needs.
About a third of children with autistic spectrum disorders eventually develop epilepsy. The risk is highest in children with severe cognitive impairment and motor deficits.
What research is being done?
NINDS supports studies aimed at identifying the underlying brain abnormalities of autism through new methods of brain imaging and other innovative techniques, and at identifying genes that increase the risk of autism.
Researchers also are investigating possible biologic markers present at birth that can identify infants at risk for the development of autism.
Other studies are examining how different brain regions develop and function in relation to each other, and how alterations in these relationships may result in the signs and symptoms of autism.
Researchers hope these studies will provide new clues about how autism develops and how brain abnormalities affect behavior.
The NINDS is a member of the US Department of Health and Human Services Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC).
For additional information developed by member organizations, including booklets, factsheets, summaries, and information about clinical research, please visit the IACC site at https://iacc.hhs.gov/index.shtml
Click here to view a list of all studies currently seeking patients.
Autism Research Institute (ARI)
4182 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD)
P.O. Box 1968
(55 Kenosia Avenue)
Danbury, CT 06813-1968
Tel: 203-744-0100 Voice Mail 800-999-NORD (6673)
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
31 Center Drive, Rm. 2A32 MSC 2425
Bethesda, MD 20892-2425
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
6001 Executive Blvd. Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Tel: 301-443-4513/301-443-8431 (TTY) 866-615-NIMH (-6464)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Information Clearinghouse
1 Communication Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20892-3456
Tel: 800-241-1044 800-241-1055 (TTD/TTY)
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education Programs
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013-1492
NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency.
Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.
All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.