You may have heard the term “autism spectrum disorder” bandied about more lately and wondered what causes autism. The fact is that the incidence of this disorder has increased ten-fold in the last 40 years. What is the disease and what causes it?

What Autism Is

The Oxford Dictionary defines autism as a “mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communication and forming relationships with other people and in using language and other abstract concepts.” Recently, the DSM-5 diagnostic manual combined all types of Autism under one diagnosis, including Asperger’s Syndrome and “unspecified” in the designation. The website Autism Speaks characterizes Autism as a group of disorders of brain development. The most obvious signs that a child is autistic begin to emerge between two and three years of age. According to the same website, one in sixty-eight children is diagnosed with Autism; there are more boys with the disorder than girls. Today, there are approximately three million people in the United States who have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

What is the Autism Spectrum?

This term refers to the many kinds of autism and to the extent to which it impairs functioning. The symptoms seem to overlap at times and may be more, or less severe. One therapist defined the spectrum as a rainbow where the colors seem to mix as they met. According to the Internet Special Education Resources website, classic autism, or Kanner’s Syndrome, is the most common kind. These children usually do not form emotional attachments and resist any change in routine or environment. The level that these children function is difficult to assess because of their inability to communicate. Pervasive developmental disorder—not specified is a diagnosis given to children who appear to have most of the symptoms of classic autism. Rett’s Syndrome is a rare disorder found only in girls. The children have repetitive hand movements and are subject to muscle atrophy. They are very low-functioning. Childhood disintegrative disorder is unusual as well. These children appear normal in development until sometime between their second and fourth birthdays, when they begin to deteriorate. Asperger’s Syndrome is the highest functioning disorder on the spectrum. These children are often misdiagnosed as having ADD or obsessive-compulsive disorder. They are resistant to change, but usually highly intelligent and talented in one or more areas that they focus on to the exclusion of others. Some researchers believe Einstein had Asperger’s.

What Causes the Disorder?

That brings us to the initial question: what causes autism? Before recent advances, the answer to this question was “who knows?” New research seems to indicate there is no one cause. Rare genetic mutations have been identified, but it appears that the disorder is not caused by any one mutation, but by a combination of genetic factors and environmental issues. Some children seem to have a genetic disposition to autism. In fact, in a study of twins, it was discovered that if one twin displayed autism symptoms, then the likelihood that the other twin would be affected was 36-95 percent. Advanced parental age at conception is another factor scientists are looking at. Children whose mother was ill during pregnancy or who had difficulty in the birth, especially in oxygen deprivation, were more likely to be autistic. Autism is more prevalent in children who were born prematurely. One thing scientists are investigating as a possible link to autism is a disorder in the immune system. It seems to be a combination of factors, and not any single thing, that causes the disorder. While it is too early in research to say for certainty what causes autism, most researchers have been definite in what does not cause it: parental actions or immunizations.
If your child, or the child of someone you know, has been diagnosed with autism, there are treatments available. Although there is no cure, some children’s symptoms seem to abate over time. In time, research will reveal what causes autism, and we can work on a cure, or at least significant interventions.

Related Resource: 5 Ways To Communicate With Children With Autism