Autism Symptoms and Causes

Experts don't know what causes autism, but they do know that symptoms can change with age — and that diagnosis and treatment can have a big impact.

Experts don't know what causes autism, but they do know that symptoms can change with age — and that diagnosis and treatment can have a big impact.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism for short, is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It appears in early childhood and continues throughout a person’s life.

Symptoms of Autism

Signs of autism usually appear before age 3, but they sometimes are not noticed until much later. One of the reasons autism sometimes goes unrecognized is that symptoms can vary widely from person to person. They can also change as a person ages.

Early diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference in the lives of people with autism. If you notice any of the following symptoms, please schedule a consultation with the autism care team at Rush.

Early childhood symptoms

  • No smiling by 6 months
  • Little or no sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by 9 months
  • Little or no babbling, pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No single words by 16 months
  • Limited use of gestures by 16 months
  • No two-word phrases by age 2
  • Little or no eye contact by age 2
  • Tendency to arrange objects in a line or flap them back and forth
  • High sensitivity to sounds, smells, tastes and textures
  • Loss of previously acquired speech or social skills

Elementary school-age symptoms

  • Difficulty making friends or connecting with other children
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Little or no interest in pretend games or group activities
  • Little or inconsistent reaction when people are talking to them
  • Trouble understanding or talking about feelings
  • Lack of interest in other people and surroundings
  • A lack of motivation to do school work
  • Behavioral problems
  • Repetitive body movements such as hand flapping or rocking

Teenage symptoms

Adult symptoms

If You Notice Symptoms of Autism

If you or your child has symptoms of autism, a good first step is to make an appointment with a primary care doctor at Rush. For your child, this might be a pediatrician or a family medicine physician. For you, it could be any primary care provider.

At Rush, pediatricians screen all children younger than 2 to see if they are at risk for autism. If your pediatrician or primary care doctor notices signs of autism, they'll refer you to an autism specialist at Rush.

Rush has one of the most experienced autism care teams in Illinois. And we're the only autism center to diagnose and treat both children and adults.

What Causes Autism?

Autism affects people across all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. Experts do not fully understand what causes it, or why specific symptoms and their severity vary so much from person to person.

Research suggests that a person's genes and environment may play a role. Sex or gender may also play a role: Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism.

Although there is no cure for autism, diagnosis and treatment can reduce symptoms, develop social skills and improve quality of life.