Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2010;81(4):461

See related article on children with autism

What is autism?

Autism is a condition that makes it hard to communicate and relate to others. Sometimes it causes people to repeat behaviors over and over. People with autism will have it their whole lives. Some people will have mild symptoms and some will have more severe symptoms. Children usually show symptoms before three years of age. Anyone can have it, but it is more common in boys than girls.

What causes it?

Autism may be caused by problems in the brain. It may run in families. Studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism.

What are the signs of autism?

Your child may have autism if you notice these behaviors:

  • Not pointing to things he or she wants

  • Not answering when his or her name is called

  • Not having back-and-forth communication

  • Unusual actions, such as toe walking, hand flapping, looking at things up close or out of the corner of the eye, or unusual finger movements near the eyes

  • Trouble handling changes in daily routines or habits

What should I do if I think my child has it?

Talk with your child's doctor. The doctor may recommend a specialist who works with children with autism. Children younger than three years can get help from a local early intervention agency. Children three years and older can get help through their school. To find help in your area, call the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities at 1-800-695-0285. You can also visit their Web site at http://www.nichcy.org.

Where can I get more information?

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Web site: http://www.aap.org/healthtopics/autism.cfm

Autism Society of America

Autism Speaks

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

First Signs

  • Web site: http://www.firstsigns.org

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