Questions and answers about autism spectrum disorders (ASD)

Online Q&A
September 2013

Q: What is autism?

A: Autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex brain development disorders. This umbrella term covers conditions such as autism, childhood disintegrative disorder and Asperger syndrome. These disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication and a restricted and repetitive repertoire of interests and activities.

Q: How common is autism?

A: Recent reviews estimate a global median prevalence of 62/10 000, that is one child in 160 has an autism spectrum disorder. This estimate represents an average figure, and reported prevalence varies substantially across studies. Some recent studies have, however, reported rates that are substantially higher.

Q: Do persons with autism always suffer from intellectual disability?

A: The level of intellectual functioning is extremely variable in persons with ASD, ranging from profound impairment to superior non-verbal cognitive skills. It is estimated that around 50% of persons with ASD also suffer from an intellectual disability.

Q: How early can autism be recognized in children?

A: The identification of an autism spectrum disorder is difficult before the age of about 12 months but diagnosis is ordinarily possible by the age of two years. Characteristic features of the onset include delay in the development or temporary regression in language and social skills and repetitive stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Q: What can parents do to help their child with autism?

A: Parents have an essential role in providing support to children with autism. They can help to ensure access to health services and education, and offer the affection and care needed as the child grows up. Recently, it has been shown that parents can also successfully deliver psychosocial and behavioral treatments to their own children.

Q: What causes autism?

A: Scientific evidence suggests that various factors, both genetic and environmental, contribute to the onset of autism spectrum disorders by influencing early brain development.

Q: Are childhood vaccines responsible for autism?

A: Available epidemiological data show that there is no evidence of a link between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders. Previous studies suggesting a causal link were found to be seriously flawed. There is also no evidence to suggest that any other childhood vaccine may increase the risk of autism spectrum disorders. In addition, evidence reviews commissioned by WHO concluded that there was no association between the use of preservatives such as thiomersal that contains ethyl mercury in vaccines and autism spectrum disorders.

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