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What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Child facing away from the camera, sitting and hugging a teddy bearIn the United States, an estimated 1 in 68 children are born autistic, and the prevalence increased 119.4 percent from 2000 to 2010.[1] As of May 2013, autism spectrum disorder is the term used for all autism disorders, including autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder and Asperger syndrome.[2] ASD and its causes have been increasingly discussed, researched and debated in recent years, and improved awareness about ASD can help promote inclusion and acceptance of those who have it.

The Autism Society, which sponsors National Autism Awareness Month in April, defines autism spectrum disorder as “a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a ‘spectrum condition’ that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.”[3]

Behaviors associated with ASD include the following: difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation, having trouble relating to others or not being interested in them at all, delayed learning of language, difficulty expressing their needs using typical words or motions, narrow and intense interests, poor motor skills and sensory sensitivities, trouble adapting to a change in routine, and preferring not to be held or cuddled, to name a few.[4],[5]

How is autism spectrum disorder detected and diagnosed?

Autism is treatable and studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes, according to the Autism Society.[6] It is important that parents know the signs, look for them in their children, and discuss behavioral and developmental concerns with their child’s pediatrician.[7],[8]

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an autism screening for all children at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkups and advises all parents to talk with a doctor if they believe their child needs to be screened, regardless of age.[9]

Do vaccines cause autism?

There is a pervasive debate over the safety of vaccines and whether or not they cause autism. At the crux of this controversy: thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative and other ingredients used in vaccines.[10],[11] Thimerosal has been phased out of routine childhood vaccines in the U.S., except for a few multidose flu shots.[12] Still, various polls show that the number of Americans who believe vaccines cause autism ranges from 6 percent to 20 percent.[13],[14] About 52 percent say they are unsure.[15]

Many medical studies conducted in recent years show there is no link between vaccines, vaccine ingredients (including thimerosal), and autism spectrum disorder and that vaccines do not increase the risk for ASD.[16],[17] The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Autism Speaks and other public health, medical and nonprofit organizations have assured parents that vaccines are not only safe but also important.[18],[19],[20]

There is no known single cause of autism, and there are many different factors related to environment, biology and genes that increase a child’s likelihood of having ASD.[21],[22] Parents who are concerned about the safety of childhood immunizations, or adult immunizations for that matter, should discuss such concerns with their healthcare providers.

To learn more about what autism is—and what isn’t—check out “10 Things People with Autism Want You to Know” from Autism Speaks.

 


[1] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts About ASD.” CDC.gov. Last updated March 28, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

[2] Autism Speaks. “What is Autism?” N.D. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism

[3] The Autism Society. “About Autism.” N.D. http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts About ASD.” CDC.gov. Last updated March 28, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

[6] The Autism Society. “About Autism.” N.D. http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/

[7] Ibid.

[8] American Academy of Pediatrics. “How is Autism Diagnosed?” HealthyChildren.org. Last updated Sept. 4, 2015. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/Autism/Pages/Diagnosing-Autism.aspx

[9] Ibid.

[10] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.” CDC.gov. Last updated Nov. 23, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html

[11] Willingham, Emily and Laura Helft. “The Autism-Vaccine Myth.” PBS. NOVA. Sept. 9, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/autism-vaccine-myth.html

[12] Ibid.

[13] Newport, Frank. “In U.S., Percentage Saying Vaccines are Vital Dips Slightly.” Gallup. March 6, 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/181844/percentage-saying-vaccines-vital-dips-slightly.aspx

[14] Shute, Nancy. “Half of Americans Believe In Medical Conspiracy Theories.” NPR. March 19, 2014. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/03/19/291405689/half-of-americans-believe-in-medical-conspiracy-theories

[15] Newport, Frank. “In U.S., Percentage Saying Vaccines are Vital Dips Slightly.” Gallup. March 6, 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/181844/percentage-saying-vaccines-vital-dips-slightly.aspx

[16] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.” CDC.gov. Last updated Nov. 23, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html

[17] Autism Speaks. “No MMR-Autism Link in Large Study of Unvaccinated Kids.” AutismSpeaks.org. April 20, 2015. https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/no-mmr-autism-link-large-study-vaccinated-vs-unvaccinated-kids

[18] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.” CDC.gov. Last updated Nov. 23, 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html

[19] Remley, Karen. “American Academy of Pediatrics Reiterates Safety and Importance of Vaccines [Press Release].” AAP.org. Sept. 27, 2015. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Reiterates-Safety-and-Importance-of-Vaccines.aspx

[20] Autism Speaks. “Vaccines and Autism: Autism Speaks Statement on Vaccines.” March 1, 2015. https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/policy-statements/information-about-vaccines-and-autism

[21] The Autism Society. “About Autism.” N.D. http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/

[22] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Facts About ASD.” CDC.gov. Last updated March 28, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

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