Autism: What Is It, Causes, and Signs

Autism: What Is It, Causes, and Signs

  • What is autism?
  • What are the causes of the condition?
  • How does an autistic child perceive the world around them?
  • Symptoms and signs of autism
  • Manifestations of childhood autism: early signals for parents
  • Intelligence in a child with autism
  • Types of autistic disorders
  • Methods of diagnosing autism
  • Is autism curable?
  • Autism or another condition?
  • Prognosis

Parents who are told that their child has autism often perceive this condition as a death sentence. What is this mysterious disease, what are the causes of its development, and can it be recognized at an early stage? Let’s consider these questions in this article.

What is autism?

Autism is a disorder of mental and psychological development characterized by a pronounced deficit in emotional expression and communication skills. The word “autism” translates to “withdrawn into oneself” or “person within themselves.” Individuals with this condition often do not express their emotions, gestures, or verbal communication to others, and their actions often lack social meaning.

Many parents are concerned about how to understand if their child has autism and at what age this condition first manifests. This diagnosis is most often made in children between the ages of 3 and 5 and is referred to as Early Childhood Autism (ECA) or Asperger’s syndrome. The clinical manifestations of this condition, as well as treatment principles, depend on the form of autism and often manifest as deficits in facial expressions, gestures, volume, and clarity of speech.

What are the causes of the condition?

In most cases, autistic children are physically well-developed and have a pleasant appearance, making it impossible to tell from their appearance that they have any nervous system disorder. The exact causes of autism are unknown to specialists, but they identify several factors that may contribute to the development of this condition, including:

  • Cerebral Palsy (CP)
  • Oxygen deprivation during pregnancy or childbirth
  • Maternal infections during pregnancy, such as rubella, cytomegalovirus
  • Maternal obesity (medical professionals have noted that the risk of autism development in a child is higher if the mother suffered from obesity and other metabolic disorders during pregnancy)
  • Genetic predisposition – if there have been cases of autism in the family history through the maternal or paternal line.

How does an autistic child perceive the world?

In autism, a child typically cannot connect the details of any actions into a coherent sequence. A child with autism almost always cannot distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, and sees a person not as a whole but as a “collection” of individual body parts. All external influences (touch, light, sound, close contact) are irritating to an autistic individual, which is why they often isolate themselves and refuse to interact even with close people.

Symptoms and signs of autism

Autism in children is characterized by specific clinical signs. Early childhood autism can manifest even in a one-year-old. Of course, only a specialist knowledgeable in this issue can make a precise diagnosis, but parents may suspect a problem in their child if they frequently observe the following behaviors:

  • Avoids eye contact when speaking with an adult (lack of eye contact)
  • Shows no interest in interacting with peers, prefers solitary play and moves away from the group on the playground
  • Dislikes being touched, always reacts nervously
  • Exhibits sensitivity to certain loud sounds
  • Does not speak, is more withdrawn, and when speaking, may not always express themselves clearly
  • Frequently has tantrums
  • Is either passive or hyperactive
  • Does not perceive the danger of a situation, for example, inserts objects into electrical outlets, handles sharp objects, attempts to cross a road where cars are traveling at high speeds.

Manifestations of Childhood Autism: Early Signs for Parents

For early autism, four main clinical signs are characteristic:

  • Social interaction impairment
  • Communication impairment
  • Stereotyped behavior
  • Early clinical manifestations of autism in children of preschool age (1 to 3 years old)

Social Interaction Impairment
Parents can notice the first signs of autism in their child as early as one year old. A mild form of the disease is considered a lack of eye contact, where the child does not look at the adult when spoken to and does not react to speech. Additionally, such a child may not smile at any attempt by a parent to amuse them or, conversely, laugh when there is no reason to do so.

Children with autism often use gestures in communication, but only to express their needs and desires.

A child with this problem is unable to connect with peers; other children simply do not interest them. An autistic child is always on the sidelines of group activities and prefers to play alone, with any attempts to join their play resulting in tantrums and capriciousness.

Another difference between an autistic child and a typically developing child aged 2-3 years is that they do not engage in pretend play or create a storyline for their play. Toys are not perceived as whole objects; for example, an autistic child may only be interested in the wheel of a toy car and will spend hours spinning it instead of playing with the car.

A child with autism does not respond to emotional communication from parents, but if the mother disappears from view, such a child begins to show signs of distress.

Communication Impairment
Children with autism under 5 years old often have a significant delay in speech development or mutism (complete absence of speech). Regarding the possibility of further speech development (after 5 years), it all depends on the severity of the disease – in severe cases of autism, a child may not start speaking at all or may only express their needs with short words such as eat, drink, sleep. In most cases, if speech is present, it is disjointed, sentences lack meaning, and consist of a string of words. Many autistics refer to themselves in the third person, for example, “Masha sleep, play,” etc.

Abnormal speech is observed. If you ask such a child a question, they may only repeat the last words or give an irrelevant response. In most cases, autistic children do not respond to their own name when called.

Stereotyped Behavior
Stereotyped behaviors of autistic children include the following actions:

  • Concentration on one activity – this is also called fixation. A child may spend several hours building a tower, spinning the wheel of a toy car, or assembling the same puzzle. It is very difficult to distract them from these activities.
  • Adherence to daily rituals – autistic children feel discomfort and anxiety if their familiar environment changes. Such changes as rearranging furniture in the room or moving to a new apartment can provoke deep withdrawal or pronounced aggression in the child.
  • Repeating certain movements many times – when stressed or in an unfamiliar environment, a child with autism may repetitively perform the same movements, such as rocking their head, swaying back and forth, or fiddling with their fingers.
  • Development of fear – frequent stressful situations can lead to the development of aggression even towards oneself in such a child.

Early Symptoms of Autism in Children Under One Year Old
Attentive parents can notice the first signs of autism in their child before the age of one. In the first months of life, such babies show less interest in bright toys, are less active, and have limited facial expressions. As they grow older (at 5-6 months old), infants with autism show almost no interest in nearby objects and do not attempt to grasp them, while their manual dexterity develops normally.

Intelligence in a Child with Autism
Depending on the characteristics of the course of this disease, some signs of autism may also manifest in the intellectual development of the child. In most cases, such children show mild mental retardation. Autistic children perform poorly in school, have difficulty memorizing material, and cannot concentrate during lessons – all of which are due to abnormalities and defects in the brain.

In cases where autism is caused by chromosomal abnormalities, microcephaly, or epilepsy, the child develops severe mental retardation. The main feature of this disease in children is selective intelligence. This means that affected children may excel in certain fields of study – such as drawing, mathematics, reading, or music – but significantly lag behind in other subjects.

There is a concept called savantism – a condition where an autistic child or adult is highly gifted in a specific area. There are cases where autistics can accurately reproduce a melody they heard only once or quickly solve complex math problems mentally. The most famous autistic individuals in the world include Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, and Andy Kaufman.

Types of Autistic Disorders

The most commonly encountered types of autistic disorders are Asperger’s syndrome and Rett syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome:

  • This form of autism is relatively mild, and its first symptoms appear in children after the age of 6-7. The characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome include:
      – Adequate or high intellectual level in the child;
      – Normal speech skills, clarity of speech;
      – Presence of problems with speech volume and intonation;
      – Manifestation of fixation on a specific activity;
      – Coordination disorders – clumsy gait, unusual postures;
      – Egocentrism and refusal to compromise.

An individual with Asperger’s syndrome can lead a fairly normal life, not much different from others, by successfully studying, graduating from universities, and starting families. All of this is possible only if the necessary conditions for development and upbringing were provided to the child from the beginning.

Rett Syndrome:

  • This form of autism is severe and is associated with abnormalities in the X chromosome. Rett syndrome occurs only in girls, and boys who receive this mutated chromosome perish in the womb. Rett syndrome occurs in 1 out of 10,000 girls, and its characteristic clinical symptoms include:
      – Deep withdrawal, complete isolation from the outside world;
      – Normal development of the child up to one year, followed by a sharp regression and signs of mental retardation;
      – Deceleration of head growth after one year;
      – Loss of acquired skills and purposeful limb movements;
      – Frequent purposeless hand movements resembling washing;
      – Worsening of motor coordination;
      – Absence of speech.

Often, Rett syndrome is diagnosed in parallel with epilepsy or developmental delay of the brain. With such a diagnosis, the prognosis is unfavorable, and the disease is almost impossible to correct.

Methods of Autism Diagnosis

The external clinical signs of autism in a child in the first year of life are practically absent, and only experienced parents, having more than one child in the family, can notice any deviations in development, with which they turn to a doctor. If there are cases of autism in the family or relatives, it is extremely important to carefully observe the child and seek medical help in a timely manner if necessary. The earlier the diagnosis is made for the child, the easier it will be for them to adapt to the surrounding world and society.

The main methods of diagnosing autism in children include:
  – Conducting tests with special questionnaires;
  – Brain ultrasound (ultrasonography) – allows detecting or excluding damage and anomalies in the structure of the brain, which can provoke symptoms of the disease;
  – EEG (electroencephalography) – conducted to detect epilepsy, as autism can sometimes manifest as epileptic seizures;
  – Examination of the child by an otolaryngologist and hearing testing – this is necessary to exclude speech development delay due to hearing loss.

Parents themselves should correctly assess changes in the behavior of a child who may have autism.

What an Adult Sees?

  • Not a Sign! With a High Degree of Probability Means:
    • The child is forgetful, inattentive, scattered, distracted
    • Laziness, ignoring parental recommendations, showing disobedience
    • Misunderstanding of what adults want from them, reacting to stressful situations, trying to withdraw into oneself
    • Dislikes changes, gets upset when the environment changes, prefers to perform familiar monotonous actions, refuses to learn something new
    • Unwillingness to develop, manifestation of stubbornness, refusal to comply with parental requests
    • Lack of confidence in their abilities, stress reaction to changes
    • Does not want to comply with requests, shows aggression or ignores communication
    • Manifestation of selfishness, desire to always be in charge and dominate over adults
    • Difficulty understanding the provided information
    • Easily distracted, avoids eye contact, becomes irritated by any touches or raised voices
    • Disobedience, hyperactivity, inattentiveness
    • They have increased sensitivity to sounds, new requirements, and changes in the environment.

Can Autism be Cured?

Parents of children diagnosed with autism often ask the same question – can this condition be cured? Autism cannot be cured, however, with the help of intervention methods, the condition can be significantly improved, and the child can be helped to adapt to the surrounding world to the maximum extent possible. Of course, parents need to closely collaborate with educators and engage in routine activities for a long time, but the results of these efforts can bring great success.

Here are some recommendations for parents of autistic children:

  • You must clearly understand that your child is not like others.
  • You should take maximum care to create a favorable environment for your child so that they can develop and exist in society – stress and constant changes in the environment can greatly exacerbate the child’s condition.
  • You should regularly consult with specialists – psychologists, speech therapists, psychotherapists.

Autism in young children is treated step by step:

  • Forming skills necessary for communicating with others.
  • Gradually, slowly, and confidently developing speech skills in the child.
  • Learning to imitate the child, carefully observing the slightest changes in their condition.
  • Timely eliminating behavioral disorders that are non-constructive – self-aggression, fears, withdrawal into oneself.
  • Teaching role-playing games.
  • Teaching to establish emotional contact.

Behavioral Therapy for Autism in Children

The most common direction in autism correction. A specialist observes the behavior of the autistic individual for a certain period to determine the features of the course of their condition and the patient’s reaction to various stimuli. After that, specific stimuli are selected individually to help correct the child’s behavior. For some children, the stimulus may be a toy, for others – a treat, for others – a favorite pastime. Through such incentives, the specialist reinforces the desired reactions in the child. Thus, contact is developed, acquired skills and actions are reinforced, and signs of behavioral disorders are eliminated.

Speech Therapy Treatment

Regardless of the degree and type of autism, most children still experience speech development disorders, which prevent patients from expressing their desires and communicating with others. Regular individual sessions with a speech therapist allow achieving the correct construction of sentences and clarity of speech.

Acquisition of Self-Care Skills and Social Adaptation

Autistic children lack self-care skills; they do not understand the need for daily washing, brushing teeth, dressing, and adhering to a daily routine. To consolidate the necessary skills, specialists use demonstration cards in a playful form, depicting the sequence of necessary daily actions.

Medication Therapy

Specialists resort to using medication only in cases of destructive behavioral disorders that hinder the child from feeling comfortable in society and developing fully. Sedative drugs, psychotropic agents, and neuroleptics should only be used when absolutely necessary. Parents of autistic children should understand that crying and tantrums are much better than deep withdrawal and complete apathy towards what is happening around them. Without a doctor’s prescription, parents should not give their child Glycine, Valerian tablets, or sleeping pills, as such actions can greatly harm the child.

Autism or Another Condition?

The clinical manifestations of autism in children are similar to the symptoms of some diseases, so it is important not to self-medicate but to seek medical help immediately. Diseases with similar clinical manifestations include:

  • Developmental language disorder: Despite similarities in symptoms, it responds well to correction when timely medical attention is sought and regular sessions with the child are conducted.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD are restless, have poor concentration, struggle to learn new material, and find it difficult to focus.
  • Hearing impairment: Congenital or acquired hearing impairment can cause delays in speech development and difficulties in communicating with others. Typically, hearing aids can help address the problem.
  • Schizophrenia: A mental disorder characterized by self-talk, aggression, withdrawal, hallucinations, and coordination disorders. Unlike autism, schizophrenia can be effectively managed with medication and responds well to treatment.


Parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism should understand that this is by no means a life sentence. Proper care for the child, creating and ensuring a favorable environment at home, and regular sessions with specialists help such patients grow into well-adjusted individuals, receive an education, and start families.