Ask an Expert: What Is Autism?

Dr. Michael E. Kelley discusses what is known about the causes, symptoms and evidenced-based treatments for autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Michael E. Kelley, Ph.D., BCBA-D, is Executive Director of The Scott Center for Autism Treatment and Associate Professor at the Florida Institute of Technology. 

When people refer to “Autism” today, they are usually talking about Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASD, which is a complex, brain-based disorder that affect a person’s behavior as well as social and communication skills. The Centers for Disease Control describes ASDs as:  "developmental disabilities that cause substantial impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests.”
Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, and reacting to different sensations. The thinking and learning abilities of people with ASDs can vary—from gifted to severely challenged. Children with ASD often show symptoms before the age of 3.

Autism is four times more likely to affect boys than girls, and is found in all racial, ethnic, and social groups. There is no known single cause for autism, although the best available science points to important genetic components.
Scientists are unsure what, if any, environmental triggers may be involved in autism.  One theory, popular in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, that vaccines cause autism, has since been disproven by numerous studies conducted around the world. Vaccines do not cause autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by significant impairments in social interaction and communication skills, as well as by the presence of extremely challenging behaviors.  Such behaviors include repetitive motor behaviors - such as hand flapping and body rocking - insistence on sameness, resistance to change and, in some cases, aggression or self-injury. Many individuals with an autism spectrum disorder have significant cognitive impairments, although some have typical or even above average IQs.  30-50% of people with autism also have seizures.

A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.

It is a fact that a number of medical and behavioral issues occur in conjunction with autism spectrum disorder. When conditions occur in conjunction with another disorder, they are referred to as “co-morbid.” 

Distinguishing between autism and other conditions can be challenging because the traits of autism often overlap with symptoms of other disorders and the characteristics of autism can make traditional diagnostic procedures difficult. This is especially true with comorbid disorders that affect behavior and communication.

For more information on co-morbidity in autism, please see the Autism Advisor tool kit on Autism Related Disorders. 

While there is no known cure for autism, research has definitely shown that treatment methods based on the principles of behavior, or ABA, can produce lasting behavior change for most individuals with autism.

ABA as a treatment for autism is often referred to as behavioral intervention, early intensive behavioral intervention or EIBI, or behavioral treatment. Regardless of what it is called ABA as a treatment for autism has been endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health.

In addition, it has become widely accepted among health care professionals and is used in many schools and autism treatment clinics.  To date, no other treatment has comparable evidence of effectiveness. 

Effective behavioral treatment for autism has several common characteristics; however, it is important to emphasize that it is not a “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” approach. A well-structured behavioral program is an individualized approach to treatment in which a qualified behavior analyst systematically and continually assesses the client’s current skills, needs, family preference, and environment to design effective intervention.

Another critical component of an effective ABA program is the number of learning opportunities. A good program will incorporate an abundance of opportunities. Finally, a good behavioral program will incorporate caregiver training to teach those close to the individual how to support and practice the new skills. 

Research shows that the earlier you child can begin ABA treatment, the better the outcomes. So, if you suspect your child may have autism, don’t wait to get started and contact a qualified licensed psychologist. If your child has already been diagnosed with autism, begin behavioral intervention as soon as possible. If you are not sure if you have a certified behavior analyst in your area, you can ask your pediatrician or visit

Remember and you’re not alone, and with the right therapy and timely intervention, there is hope of a bright future for individuals with autism.

You should use independent judgment and request references when considering any resource associated with diagnosis or treatment of autism or its associated medical conditions. The information in this Autism Advisor tool kit is solely for educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice.