Child development

September 2011

FocusChild development

Autism spectrum disorders

Volume 40, No.9, September 2011 Pages 672-677

Bruce Tonge

Avril Brereton


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are serious neurodevelopmental disorders affecting approximately one in 160 Australians. Symptoms are apparent during the second year of life causing impairments in social interaction, communication and behaviour with restricted and stereotyped interests.


To increase the general practitioner’s awareness of the presenting symptoms of ASDs and their associated problems in children, screening for ASDs, and the assessment process, treatment options and outcomes.


This article discusses the five red flags that are autism alerts in young children. These red flags can enable GPs to play a key surveillance role in determining which young children might require further screening and referral for an ASD assessment. Because ASDs are lifelong, neurodevelopmental disorders and symptoms change over time. Therefore the GP has an ongoing role to support, educate and advise parents, other carers and the individual with an ASD. Treatment and pharmacological interventions are also discussed.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are serious neurodevelopmental disorders affecting approximately one in 160 Australians.1 In 1943, Kanner used the word ‘autism’ to describe children who were unable to relate to others, had delayed and disordered language, repetitive behaviours and a drive for sameness.2 These three core symptoms have remained central to the diagnosis of a group of disorders referred to as ‘pervasive developmental disorders’ (PDDs) described in both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, text revised (DSM-IV-TR)3 and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).4 In 1997, Wing introduced the term ‘autism spectrum disorders’ describing a continuum of conditions from aloof children through to ‘active but odd’ children who share an autistic ‘triad of impairments’.5 The term has since been used to describe symptoms of severity, changes that occur with development and the associated range of intellectual ability.6 In line with emerging international practice, in this article the term ‘autism spectrum disorders’ will refer to autistic disorder, Asperger disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDDNOS) (atypical autism).

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