Frequently Asked Questions About Autism

Wendy Chung, M.D., Ph.D.
Director of Clinical Research, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative

Date Published: April 22, 2014

TED Speaker Wendy Chung, M.D., Ph.D., responds to frequently asked questions about autism spectrum disorder and the state of autism science research.

I think I/my child may have autism but I'm not sure. How can I find out?
The core features of autism are difficulties with social interaction and communication, and the presence of repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. However, the specific symptoms and the severity are highly variable among different individuals. If you have concerns about your child, you should speak with your pediatrician and ask that your child be screened for autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism between 18 and 24 months of age. If you or your child's pediatrician feel that further screening is required, your child should be referred to a specialized medical professional, such as a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist/psychiatrist, or neurologist, who can conduct autism-specific behavioral evaluations.

If you are an adult and are concerned that you may have autism, seek out an adult autism clinic in your area. If one does not exist, you may seek the counsel of a psychologist or psychiatrist.

How is autism diagnosed? Is there a test for it?
There is no blood test to diagnose autism spectrum disorder. A diagnosis is made based on behaviors. In order to be diagnosed with autism, an individual must display deficits in social communication and social interaction, and show restrictive and repetitive behaviors.

How can I find out what caused my child's autism?
In most individuals it is currently not possible to identify the exact cause of autism. There are a few genetic syndromes associated with autism (for example, Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome) in which the genetic cause is known. Scientists have also identified a number of rare genetic changes that are major contributors to autism. In about 25 percent of autism cases, a specific genetic cause can be identified. The remaining 75 percent of cases likely involve a complex combination of genetic factors and yet-to-be identified environmental influences. At this time, there is no evidence that specific chemicals in the environment, immunization practices or dietary differences cause autism.

How can I find out if my/my child's case is genetic? Can we tell which side of the family the autism came from?
If your child has autism and you are interested in genetic testing, you can ask your child's doctor for a referral to a medical geneticist. After conducting a detailed family history and physical exam of your child, the doctor may recommend genetic testing, which usually is a blood test and sometimes a urine test. The medical geneticist and genetic counselor can help you determine which, if any, genetic tests are appropriate for your child based on your family history, your child's physical features and your child's medical and developmental history. They can also provide genetic counseling. Some genetic testing may require pre-authorization by your insurance company. If a genetic cause is found, you can determine if the mutation was inherited from one, both or neither parent.

If there is no autism epidemic, why do the autism statistics just keep climbing?
Just days after my live TED talk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder. This estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than the last estimate, reported in 2012, which found that 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder. While the reasons for the increase are not fully understood, it is thought that better awareness in identifying and diagnosing children is the major contributing factor.

How can I be sure vaccines have nothing to do with autism?
Immunizations are a cornerstone of public health and protect people from many debilitating and deadly infectious diseases. Government agencies routinely conduct thorough analyses of the current medical and scientific evidence on vaccine safety and vaccine-related adverse events. While there is evidence of some rare adverse events related to vaccines, such as seizures, inflammation of the brain and fainting, the evidence shows that there are no links between immunization and autism.

How can I find the best treatments for myself or my child?
Research suggests that early intensive behavioral intervention, based on applied behavioral analysis, is effective at improving language, function and behavior in individuals with autism. There are two drugs, risperidone and aripiprazole, that can improve challenging behaviors such as emotional distress, aggression, hyperactivity and self-injury, but these drugs do not lead to improvements in social skills or communication. Interventions focused on parent training and cognitive behavioral therapy can improve social skills, communication, language use and management of challenging behaviors.

What progress has been made so far in autism research?
In the past five years, scientists have made significant progress in discovering the genes that contribute to autism. With this knowledge, there has also been much progress in understanding what might be different in the cells of the brain of a person with autism. Scientists in many fields are working toward a deep understanding of the mechanisms that lead to autism.

How can I help in the search for better treatments?
In order for autism research to advance, participation from individuals with autism and their families is sorely needed. If someone in your family has autism, you can visit and join the autism research community now. Your family can participate in online studies and also receive notices about local, regional and national studies looking for families like yours.

These archived articles were originally published as part of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research project. 
The project is closed and no longer accepting participants.

More about Autism Research

Center for Autism and Related Disorders

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