Autistic Behavior

Written by Darla Burke | Published on July 11, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Autistic Behavior?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) involve a wide range of clinical diagnoses, including

  • autism
  • Asperger syndrome (a mild form of autism)
  • childhood degenerative disorder
  • pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

Although the severity of the symptoms that occur with each of these disorders will be different, all ASDs result in specific impairments. These are commonly seen in three specific areas:

  • social interaction
  • language and communication
  • engagement in repetitive behavior

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in every 88 children have an ASD (CDC, 2012).

The term autistic behavior is used to describe the actions of a child with an ASD.

What Causes Autistic Behavior?

Doctors do not know for certain what causes autistic behavior. Genetics may play a role. Research examining the brains of children with autism has shown abnormalities in several different regions. Environment may also play a part in the development of autism. Exposure of the fetus to certain toxins or viruses may increase the chances of developing autism.

Autism may also be passed down through families. If an identical twin has autism, there is a 90 percent chance that his or her twin will have the disorder. Families with a child who has autism have a one in 20 chance of having another child with autism. Even though this is only a five percent risk, it is higher than the risk for families that do not have a child with autism (NINDS, 2012).

For unknown reasons, boys are significantly more likely to have autism. Studies show that one in 54 boys is diagnosed with an ASD, while only one in 252 girls suffer from an ASD (CDC, 2012).

Many people believe that autistic behavior is caused by vaccines. The link between vaccines and autism has received much media attention in recent years. However, there is no evidence that suggests that childhood immunizations cause autism. If you are concerned about this issue, talk with your doctor.

What Are the Symptoms of Autistic Behavior?

The symptoms of autistic behavior vary depending on your specific diagnosis. The most common feature of autistic behavior is difficulty with social interaction. Infants and children who display this behavior may:

  • not respond when their names are called
  • avoid eye contact
  • not respond appropriately to social cues, such as someone being angry or upset
  • engage in self-injurious behavior, such as biting
  • engage in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth

As autistic children grow, they may develop problems in other areas, including language and communication. Children with ASDs typically learn to speak later than children without the disorder.

In addition, children with ASDs:

  • may refer to themselves by name instead of using pronouns such as “I” or “me”
  • will not know how to play with other children
  • appear disinterested when being engaged by other children or adults
  • may not smile or respond to others
  • may have specific interests or habits that are more important to them than interacting with others
  • may have sensitivity to loud sounds or bright lights

How Is Autistic Behavior Diagnosed?

Autistic behavior can be diagnosed by your doctor. Infants typically reach developmental milestones by certain ages. Examples include:

  • babbling by 12 months
  • gesturing and pointing by 12 months
  • saying single words by 16 months
  • saying two-word phrases by 24 months

If your child does not develop these behaviors or has other symptoms of autism, your doctor may order additional tests. Tests will be used to rule out other health problems and may include:

  • hearing tests (to rule out a hearing problem may cause similar behaviors)
  • blood tests (to look for lead toxicity, which may cause similar behaviors)

Your doctor may also screen your child for autism using the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) or the Autism Screening Questionnaire. Your doctor may refer you to a developmental psychologist for further evaluation. This specialist can provide you with a more accurate diagnosis.

How Is Autistic Behavior Treated?

Treatment for autistic behavior will depend on the severity of the symptoms. Young children diagnosed with an ASD are typically provided with early intervention services. These can include:

  • occupational therapy
  • social skills training
  • physical therapy
  • speech-language therapy

In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication to control certain behaviors. These might include:

  • risperidone for irritability and aggression
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to stabilize mood
  • methylphenidate, a stimulant

Treatment may also include changes in diet. Gluten has been postulated to be associated with certain autistic behaviors. There is no evidence to support this reasoning; however removing gluten from the diet may reduce symptoms of ASDs. Treatment works best when it is tailored to meet the needs of the individual with autism.

What Is the Outlook for a Child with Autistic Behavior?

The long-term outcome for a child with autistic behavior is better today than it was a generation ago. In the past, children with autism were typically placed in institutions. Today, early diagnosis and treatment can improve outcomes.

The prognosis for a person with autism will depend on the severity of the disorder. It will also depend on how early treatment is provided. Autistic behavior can cause emotional problems for children and family members. Getting help and support for these challenges from doctors, therapists, and family members can be beneficial.

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