According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in 68 children in the United States now has autism or is on the autism spectrum. This means that doctors will encounter more adults and children with an autism diagnosis during their careers than ever before.
The history of autism
When doctors first began diagnosing children with autism, the accepted theory was that the disorder was caused by mothers who showed no affection to their children or mothers who were "cold" or isolating. It was only in the 1960s that the idea started to get attention that autism was an actual biological disorder. It's now understood that autism isn't related to parenting; however, researchers still don't know what actually causes it.
More children than ever are being diagnosed as autistic or somewhere on the autism spectrum. The number has increased significantly since 2000, when about one in 150 children was found to be on the spectrum. This doesn't necessarily mean there are now more children with autism; perhaps, due to increasing awareness, we are more apt to make the autism diagnosis.
How is autism diagnosed?
There are many healthcare professionals who work with people on the autism spectrum. A parent, teacher, nurse practitioner or doctor may be concerned with a child's development, leading them to refer the child for testing. At that point, evaluations might be done by a psychologist, pediatrician, primary-care physician, psychiatrist or neurologist.
Unfortunately, there isn't yet a test that can give a definitive diagnosis of autism or any of the disorders on the spectrum. To make a diagnosis, healthcare professionals assess the child by monitoring the developmental milestones (developmental screening) and a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. If necessary, neurologists may also test the child to make sure there aren't any illnesses or conditions that could be causing developmental delays or disturbing behaviors.
Working with people who have autism
Doctors who are interested in working with people who have autism can specialize in one of many fields. Pediatricians and primary-care physicians who treat children will undoubtedly see children in their practice who have an autism diagnosis. But if your interest is to specialize in treating autism, other options include psychiatry (particularly child and adolescent psychiatry) and pediatric neurology.
Autism — its cause as well as its treatment — is still not clearly understood. But doctors who choose to specialize in treating autism can make a tremendous difference in the lives of their patients and their parents.
By Marijke Vroomen Durning