Autism 101

Autism spectrum disorders often arise early, causing impairment in language and social skills among children. It has genetic causes, but can also be triggered by prenatal conditions and environmental exposures. In recent years it has become possible to study autism spectrum disorders using genetics, imaging, stem cells and other methods. Traditional treatments include highly structured behavior programs. Although some drugs are used to treat the symptoms, none can prevent or eliminate the disease.

Early indicators that a baby might be on the autism spectrum include a lack of pointing and talking, an absence of interest in games, and a sense of withdrawal or unresponsiveness. If an infant shows a few of these signs, it doesn’t mean he must have autism. An 18-month-old who has not yet begun to talk could be autistic, but he also might have a hearing impairment, be under-stimulated or just slower to develop language.

Researchers at UCSF are using many methods to study autism spectrum disorders. They are isolating genes that may cause crucial differences in social skills, language and behavior. They are using advanced imaging techniques to study regions of the brain that work differently in individuals with autism. They are using stem cell and other neuroscience techniques to explore the autistic brain, one cell at a time.

Current treatments for autism spectrum disorders include behavioral interventions, pharmaceutical treatments and alternative treatments. There are pros and cons to each type, and a combination of the available therapies may be the most helpful.