Autism: Characteristics, Causes, and Treatments


The presentation of any of these behaviors means that the child in question needs further evaluation by an appropriate team of healthcare professionals with knowledge and background in autism.

Causes of autism

Autism appears to be due to a neurological disorder that impacts normal brain functioning (Autism Society of America, 2003). Earlier, it was speculated that inadequate parenting was a key factor, but this was later proved to be inaccurate (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Psychological, biological, environmental and genetic factors have been implicated in the presence of autism.

Psychologically, three neurocognitive theories have been posited as part of the cause of autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). One psychological model claims the involvement of deficits in executive functioning skills, which promote the ability to plan, problem-solve, and perform flexible set-shifting, which have been associated to specific cortical mechanisms. A second model focuses on deficits in attention and appreciation of social meaning that result from a reduced capacity to integrate information into meaningful wholes. Thirdly, a theory-of mind hypothesis has been proposed that difficulties in understanding phenomena in others and oneself results in problems with social interaction.

Biologically, there are high rates of epilepsy and various enduring neurological signs among individuals with autism, which strongly indicates the role that brain functioning plays in the disorder (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Abnormalities such as a decreased number of neurons and reduced dendritic arborisation in parts of the limbic system have been determined in post mortem studies of individuals with autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Also, several studies have reported that the overall brain size of individuals with autism is generally 2 -- 10% greater than in normal controls (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Different neurotransmitter systems have also been shown to be involved in the appearance of autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003).

Evidence for the involvement of environmental factors has been limited, but there has been some focus on the role that immunizations play in the emergence of autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). In regards to genetic factors, evidence has been demonstrated through concordance rates, which indicate that heritability of autism is greater than 90% (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Although the genetic basis for autism has been well established, the mode of genetic transmission remains unknown (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Autism is a complex disease, which means that multiple genes are implicated in the manifestation of autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003).

Treatment of autism

Methods used to treat autism have adopted approaches from the domains of special education and behavioural psychology (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Pharmacological treatments have not been shown to effectively remedy the main deficits involved in autism, but drugs may aid in treating specific behavioural symptoms associated with autism (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Goals of treatment vary according to the individual's age and particular circumstances, but they generally include the reduction of problem behaviors, as well as the promotion of improvement in communication, cognition, self-help skills, and social interactions (Volkmar & Pauls, 2003). Alternative treatments, such as gluten-free and casein-free diets, have been shown to result in the reduction of autistic behavioral traits as well (Knivsberg, A., 2003).


Autism Society of America (2003). All about autism.

Volkmar, F. & Pauls, D. (2003). Autism. Lancet, 362(9390), 1133-1202.

No Author Given (2003). Autism mysteries: New clues. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 20(6), 1-2.

Knivsberg, A., Reichelt, K., Hoien, T., Nodland, M. (2003). Effect of a dietary intervention on…