Frequently Asked Questions About Autism

This page contains some of the most frequently asked questions about autism and related issues.

If you think we should include any other questions on this page please let us know.

1) What causes autism?

We know that autism arises from differences in brain development. The causes are unknown, although there is some evidence that complex genetic factors play a part in some forms of autism but there is no single cause.

There is an urgent need for more research into how people living with autism can realise their potential and lead fulfilling lives. We do know, however, that it is definitely not to do with emotional deprivation or the way a person is brought up. People living with autism and their families urgently need to be aware of what treatments and other *approaches are available to them and worth considering integrating into their lives. They also need understanding, support and services.

See Causes of autism

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2) Is autism on the increase?

There is some evidence to show that the numbers diagnosed with autism are increasing but there has been a broadening of the diagnostic criteria and diagnostic practices have improved and become more widely known. Autism has only relatively recently been properly recognized and diagnosed (since the 60s and 70s) and there are currently no accurate records of the numbers of autistic people with which we can compare. It is suspected that the number of adults living with the condition is vastly underestimated. As part of our work going forward, Research Autism is investing in a prevalence study that will try to identify exactly how many people in the UK are living with autism. The known costs of autism to the UK economy are certainly increasing: a recent study undertaken by The London School of Economics estimated the cost of autism on the UK economy to be just under £28 billion each year.

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3) Is autism caused by MMR?

There is no evidence linking autism to MMR. We are very aware of the concerns of parents on this issue and we urge parents to discuss vaccinations and their individual children's needs with their GP. It is vital that health professionals listen to parents concerns and take them seriously as the experts on their own children.

See Myths about autism

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4) Is autism caused by TV/radiation/mercury/drinking during pregnancy etc?

Autism has been linked to a host of different possible causes and there is very little evidence to support most of these theories. The commonly held view is that autism may be the result of a number of genetic factors working together. These are complex and there may be other actors involved such as infections, trauma or the environment. While research into causes is ongoing, it is crucial that we invest funds into ensuring people with autism now can access the best interventional treatments and therapies now to ensure they have fulfilling lives.

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5) Is autism linked to criminal behaviour?

There is no established link between autism and offending. Often however, autistic people are more vulnerable to being victims of crime because of the nature of their social difficulties, and they may be taken advantage of. A small number may however, as a result, of anxiety or impaired social understanding, get into trouble with the law.

See Challenging and Disruptive Behaviour

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6) Can autism be cured?

Autism is a lifelong condition. Unless there is a specific medical condition causing autism symptoms the concept of cure is not appropriate as autism is a term used to describe a range of developmental conditions with no known cause. It is also the case that autistic individuals may have particular abilities that are of huge benefit to society and may have superior technical, analytical or creative abilities.

Where autism represents a disability, appropriate education and support, can reduce or mitigate the adverse effects and autistic children can go on to fulfil their potential. It is important that the individuality and uniqueness of each individual is recognised in the assessment and intervention process

See Outcomes and Interventions

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7) What treatments are there for autism?

Autism is a spectrum, so every individual's needs are very different and they will respond differently to different forms of therapy or intervention. There are no treatments known to be effetive for the core condition of autism unless this is related to an untreated medical condition such as PKU (Phenylketonuria)'

The main categories of intervention are:

  • Psychotherapeutic or psychodynamic
  • Psychodeducational, including behavioural
  • Psychopharmacological (drugs)
  • Biomedical
  • Alternative or complementary
  • Services

Psychotherapeutic approaches have generally fallen out of favour although these may still be used in resolving some of the associated issues involved with acceptance of the child and relationships.

Secondary,associated or comorbid problems can be approached through a variety of means, each with merits and potential difficulties. For example structured behavioural/communication-based approaches, the use of visual aids and structured teaching may help with adapation and functional communication and improve independent functioning. Some behavioural programmes are controversial and viewed by some as aversive or that the skills aquired are lacking in general application. Some parent training programmes are very expensive and as yet have not been independely evaluated.

In a case where a child has additional physical problems these should be properly investigated and treated. In some cases where changes in diet or supplements have been instigated improvements have been reported by parents, although the research evidence on this is mixed at the present time. There are concerns about the nutritional intake of some children on special diets or nutitrional supplements. Other programmes related to detoxification or more invasive procedures are controversial and should only be considered if specifically recommended by a suitably qualiified and exprerienced physician.

Medication may play a part in the treatment plan overall or in reducing anxiety or treating depression but there is no drug for autism and there are concerns about the longer term use of many medications.

Service interventions might include adaptations to a building to make this more accessible for autistic individuals or the provision of particular programmes of advice and support.

Some of the complementary or alternative approaches would seem to have no rational scientific basis but should still be properly evaluated if they appear promising and do no harm.

Research Autism is the only charity in the UK whose sole focus is to improve the quality of life of those on the autistic spectrum - and their families - through the origination, sponsorship and funding of research into interventional treatments and therapies. It is important to remember that each person will have their own individual needs and so it is essential that they are given as much information on interventional approaches so that they can explore what suits them.

See Interventions

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Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

"Autism is both a disability and a difference. We need to find ways of alleviating the disability while respecting and valuing the difference."

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15 Jun 2022