Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

What You Should Know About Autism


Am Fam Physician. 2002 Nov 1;66(9):1680.

What is autism?

Autism is a brain disorder that causes poor development of language and social skills. People with autism may also have mental retardation, seizures, or mental disorders (e.g., depression and anxiety). About one third will be able to achieve some degree of independent living as adults.

What causes autism?

No one knows for sure what causes autism. It is not caused by poor parenting or immunization shots (vaccines). In some cases, it may be caused by an inherited problem or lead poisoning.

How can I tell if my child is autistic?

Early detection of autism can improve the eventual outcome. Your doctor may want to screen for autism if your child:

  • is not babbling by 12 months of age.

  • doesn't point or make other gestures by 12 months of age.

  • doesn't use single words by 16 months of age.

  • doesn't use two-word phrases by 24 months of age.

  • seems to have lost a skill he or she had before (at any age).

How is autism treated?

There are different treatments for autism. Traditional treatments use positive reinforcement (rewarding a desired behavior) and negative reinforcement (not rewarding an undesired behavior) in settings designed to help with learning.

No medicine has been found to treat autism, but some medicines may help treat a child with seizures, hyperactivity, or depression.

Where can I get more information?

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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Sep 2021

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