Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment
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About Autism

Autism is a highly prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children are identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

ASD includes a wide range, or “spectrum,” of symptoms, skills and levels of disability. Symptoms are typically recognized in the first two years of life and may hurt the individual’s ability to function socially. Some common characteristics include:

  • Ongoing social problems, including difficulty communicating and interacting with others
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Limited interests or activities

ASD includes autism, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. Patients with autism often have other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as:

  • Intellectual disability
  • Learning disability
  • Seizure disorders or epilepsy
  • Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Sleep disturbances

Conversely, autism is often a feature of another neurodevelopmental disorder, such as:

  • Fragile-X syndrome
  • Many copy-number variation disorders
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Down syndrome
  • Angelman syndrome 

Genetics has a major contribution to the causes of autism, and over the past few years many genes and mutations have been linked to autism. Environmental factors are also likely to play a role, but their effects are more difficult to study. Emerging evidence indicates that these genetic alterations affect brain development (neurodevelopment).

Intense behavioral and educational therapies, such as applied behavior analysis and the developmental social-pragmatic model, especially when implemented early in life, can that help children develop social and communication skills and, later on, job skills. Pharmacological treatments are also being used to address specific symptoms and comorbidities. While there is currently no cure for autism, understanding its biological bases holds the promise for the development of new treatments.

To learn more about autism and find local resources, visit the links below:

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