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Tucson Alliance

for Autism

Frequently Asked Questions about Autism

  • What is autism?
    Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.

    Autism is one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by “severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development”. - ASA

  • How common is autism?
    Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, affecting an estimated 1 in 110 births (Centers for Disease Control Prevention, 2007). Roughly translated, this means as many as 1.5 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism, and this number is on the rise. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a startling rate of 10-17 percent per year. At this rate, the ASA estimates that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

    Autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries; family income levels; lifestyle choices; or educational levels, and can affect any family and any child. And although the overall incidence of autism is consistent around the globe, it is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls. - ASA

  • How are ASDs diagnosed?
    There is no medical test for ASDs.  Doctors look at behavioral symptoms to make a diagnosis.  Typically, a diagnosis is made after a thorough evaluation.  Such an evaluation may include clinical observations, parent interviews, developmental histories, psychological testing, speech and language assessments, and possibly the use of one or more of a variety of autism diagnostic scales.  Because ASDs are a complex disorder, a comprehensive evaluation may also include physical, neurological, and genetic testing.

    The most common autism diagnostic tools include:
    1. Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised (ADI-R)
    2. Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)
    3. Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)
    4. The Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS)  - CDC


  • What are characteristics of an ASD?
    ASDs are characterized by delays or impairment in social skills, language, and behavior (repetitive or stereotypical behaviors).

  • What are some warning signs of an ASD?
    1. not play pretend games
    2. not point at objects to show interest
    3. not look at objects when another person points at them
    4. have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
    5. avoid eye contact and want to be alone
    6. have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
    7. prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they want to
    8. appear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond other sounds
    9. be very interested in people, but not know how to talk to, play with, or relate to them
    10. repeat words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)
    11. have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
    12. repeat actions over and over again
    13. have trouble adapting to changes in routine
    14. have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
    15. lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they once were using)  - CDC webpage


  • What is the difference between autism and PDD?
    Autism is one of five developmental disabilities that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD).   PDDs are defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 4th Edition – Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) and include the following disorders:  Autistic Disorder, Rhett’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, and PDD Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

  • What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
    Asperger Syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder that is characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. Typical features of the syndrome also may include clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements, social impairment with extreme egocentricity, limited interests and unusual preoccupations, repetitive routines or rituals, speech and language peculiarities, and non-verbal communication problems. The onset of Asperger Syndrome commonly occurs after the age of 3. Some individuals who exhibit features of autism, but who have well-developed language skills may be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. 

    There is no specific course of treatment or cure for Asperger Syndrome. Treatment, which is symptomatic and rehabilitational, may include both psychosocial and psychopharmacological interventions such as psychotherapy, parent education and training, behavioral modification, social skills training, educational interventions, and/or medications including psycho-stimulants, mood stabilizers, beta blockers, and tricyclic-type antidepressants. 

    Children with Asperger Syndrome have a better outlook than those with other forms of pervasive developmental disorders and are much more likely to grow up to be independently functioning adults. Nonetheless, in most cases, these individuals will continue to demonstrate, to some extent, subtle disturbances in social interactions. There is also an increased risk for development of psychosis (a mental disorder) and/or mood problems such as depression and anxiety in the later years.

  • Are there any co morbid conditions associated with autism?
    1. Cognitive dysfunction
    2. Seizures
    3. Chronic constipation or diarrhea
    4. Sleeping problems
    5. Pica
    6. Low muscle tone
    7. Sensory problems


  • Do vaccinations cause autism?
    There is currently a debate within the autism community itself regarding what impact, if any, vaccinations have on autism.  A significant amount of research has been conducted in the last several years, and the scientific community has yet to establish any link between vaccinations and autism.  Individuals hesitant about using vaccinations for their children are encouraged to review national literature from the Autism Society of America or Autism Speaks and then discuss their concerns with their child’s pediatrician.

  • Can autism be “cured”?
    Unfortunately there is currently no cure for autism.  Some therapies and interventions have shown to be very successful for some individuals on the spectrum, but no one intervention works for all individuals.  Be careful of any web sites or individuals offering to “cure” autism.

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