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The term autism covers broad range of neurological disorders known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and symptoms can be mild to severe. Many people with ASD can lead very productive lives. In fact, some very successful and famous people have ASD. And, as new therapies are introduced, even those with severe cases of ASD are finding ways to communicate and unlock much of their potential.

Children with ASD have differences in the way their brains develop and process information. They might have language delays or trouble communicating with others, perform certain unusual or repetitive behaviors, or have difficulties learning in school. ASD may include pervasive developmental disorders and Asperger syndrome. ASD can be diagnosed by a physician, psychologist or diagnostician.

No two cases of autism are exactly alike. Depending on your child's condition, symptoms can be severe and interfere with everyday tasks or they can be mild and cause few problems. Doctors and scientists call this range of symptoms a "spectrum." Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) are conditions that fall within the autism spectrum.

Without appropriate treatment, these disorders can have lasting effects on a child's physical, social, and emotional development. Cook Children's Occupational Therapy program is designed to address these problems and to each child realize his or her optimal growth and development.

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), are a group of developmental conditions that involve delayed or impaired communication and social skills, behaviors, and cognitive skills. Symptoms of ASDs range from mild to severe. As a result, each child – and family – coping with autism has a unique set of challenges. Below, learn about one family's experience with autism.

In the past, doctors didn't know a lot about autism. But that's changing. New research has made it easier for doctors to diagnose and begin treating kids earlier than ever before. With early and appropriate treatment that usually includes speech and behavioral therapy, kids with autism can have the opportunity to reach their best potential.

What causes it?

Causes of autism are not yet fully understood, but scientists believe that genes and environmental factors are involved. In fact, new research has found that genes play a major role; there's a 30% chance of a child developing autism if a sibling has it.

But this doesn't necessarily mean that autism is passed down from parent to child. Some studies suggest that kids with a genetic risk or predisposition to autism might develop it when they are exposed to something (yet unknown) in the environment.

There was a 1998 study that suggested vaccines could cause autism, but that report has since been retracted by the medical journal that originally published the flawed research.

It's also important to remember that autism is not caused by parenting or bad experiences. Earlier theories that suggested this have been disproved as well.

Signs and symptoms

Signs of autism are usually recognizable by 2 or 3 years of age. But because symptoms are sometimes hard to notice, it can take longer to fully identify autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that pediatricians look for signs that suggest the possibility of autism at every visit. Formal autism screening can begin as early as 16 months of age.

Signs of autism can include:

  • Trouble interacting, playing with, or relating to others
  • Making little or brief eye contact with others
  • Not responding to play or back-and-forth sounds and facial expressions
  • Doesn't babble by the age of 12 months
  • No big smiles or warm, joyful expressions
  • Not pointing to objects to call attention to them
  • Unusual or repetitive movements, such as hand flapping, spinning, or tapping
  • Delays in developmental milestones or loss of milestones already achieved
  • Playing with a toy in a way that seems odd or repetitive
  • Not using or understanding language as a child that age typically would
  • Not exploring surroundings with curiosity or interest (a child seeming to be in his or her "own world")
  • Regressing in development such as loss of speech or social skills

How is autism diagnosed?

Currently there isn't a medical test for diagnosing autism. Instead, your child will be seen by our team of neurologists and neuropsychologists who are specially trained in the unique behavioral issues that are specific to autism.

In most cases, parents are the first to notice unusual behaviors and developmental issues in their child. If you have concerns, we strongly recommend that you discuss them with your pediatrician. During every well-child visit your doctor is checking your child's physical health and growth, and also his or developmental growth. If you feel your child has any symptoms of autism your doctor will know what to look for. In most cases, these issues won't be caused by autism, but if your doctor is concerned, your child may be referred to our neurosciences team for further screening and evaluation.

How is it treated?

Every child is different and so is every case of autism. Some kids with autism grow up to be artists, scientists and great business leaders. At the other end of the spectrum, some children face big challenges.

Although there's no cure for autism, early intervention and therapy can help kids develop skills and achieve their best potential. Therapy is tailored to each child's individual needs and may include medications and/or behavioral, educational, speech, and occupational therapies.

It's not uncommon for children with autism to have other medical conditions, including seizures and gastrointestinal issues. Treating these conditions can help to improve your child's abilities in behavioral and occupational therapies as well.

The goal of therapy is to help kids learn how to:

  • Be safe and take care of their bodies
  • Communicate with peers and caregivers
  • Play with others and cooperate with social rules
  • Minimize unwanted behaviors, like repetitive or aggressive behaviors

Research suggests that a minimum of 25 hours a week of social, behavioral, play, speech, and other developmental therapies can help maximize a child's potential. Sometimes medications are also used to treat certain symptoms, like aggression toward oneself or others, problems of inattention, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and mood swings.

A key part of your child's treatment is care for the whole family. Autism affects everyone, not just the child who is diagnosed with it. Learning ways to communicate with your child as well coping skills for parents, brothers and sisters, and other caregivers can help to ease the road ahead.

Your medical team may include:

We're here to help.

If your child has been diagnosed, you probably have lots of questions. We can help. If you would like to schedule an appointment, refer a patient or speak to our staff, please call our offices at 682-885-2500.