Facts and Figures About Autism

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain.

Autism is one of five disorders coming under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterized by "severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development," including social interaction and communications skills. Individuals with autism may exhibit some of the following traits:

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Laughing, crying, showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
  • Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
  • Tantrums
  • Difficulty in mixing with others
  • May not want to cuddle or be cuddled
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spins objects
  • Inappropriate attachments to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fears of danger
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range.

Autism and its associated behaviors have been estimated to occur in as many as 2 to 6 in 1,000 individuals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2001). As many as 1.5 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism.

Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year. At these rates, the ASA estimates that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence.

There is no known single cause for autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in autistic versus non-autistic children. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that autistic children may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single "trigger" that causes autism to develop.

Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals.

Experts agree that early intervention is important in addressing the symptoms associated with autism. The earlier that treatment is started, the better the chance the child will reach normal functioning levels. Many of the approaches we describe can be used on children as young as age 2 or 3. They may also continue to be used in conjunction with special education programs or traditional elementary school for children who are mainstreamed.

Most professionals agree that individuals with autism respond well to highly-structured, specialized education programs, designed to meet the individual's needs. Based on the major characteristics associated with autism, there are areas that are important to look at when creating a plan: social skill development, communication, behavior, and sensory integration. Programs sometimes include several treatment components coordinated to assist a person with autism. For example, one individual's program may consist of speech therapy, social skill development and the use of medication, all within a structured behavior program. Another child's may include social skill development, sensory integration and dietary changes.

* This information was provided by the Autism Society of America
For more information about autism, you can look at the following web sites:

Autism Society of America

National Autism Association

Autism Speaks -- www.autismspeaks.org

National Research Council Report on Educating Children with Autism

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Autism Information Center

National Institute of Mental Health -- Autism Information

Autism Connection of PA