In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medical Model Perspectives on Autism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • History
  • Influential Publications
  • Personal Reflections
  • Characteristics
  • Incidence
  • Etiology
  • Prognosis

Childhood Studies Medical Model Perspectives on Autism
Stephen E. Brock, Emily Holly, Hilary Sisson, Alyssa Ybarra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0063


“Autism” is a term used to describe a broad range of neurodevelopmental differences (also referred to as “autism spectrum disorders” or ASDs), characterized by social-communicative difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviors/interests (e.g., rocking or twirling and/or unusual and narrowly focused interests). Challenges with social interactions are the primary feature of autism. The severity of autism varies. While some individuals are profoundly disabled and may also have intellectual disabilities, others are much less impaired and may be able to function independently. Diagnosis requires symptom onset early in development and is typically made by careful behavioral observation. There is no medical test for autism. Among the early indicators of autism are failing to respond to one’s name, an absence of smiling or social responsiveness, a lack of eye contact, and a loss of previously acquired language or social skills. While persons with more disabling forms of autism will display these early indicators, individuals with the less challenging forms (often referred to as “high functioning autism”) may not be identified until later in the developmental period. Among the later indicators of autism are difficulty making friends; problems starting or maintaining two-sided conversations; absence of imaginative/pretend play; stereotyped, repetitive, unusual language; restricted interests that are unusual in intensity or focus; preoccupation with certain subjects; inflexible need to maintain specific routines or rituals; and hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory aspects of the environment. The prevalence of autism is much higher than it was once thought to be (current estimates suggest a global median prevalence of 62/10,000), with the increased incidence being primarily attributed to a loosening of diagnostic criteria, improved case finding, better diagnostic practices, and increased public awareness and not an actual increase in the number of people with autism. There is no single cause of autism, but genetics plays an important role. Although there is no cure for autism, early identification and support can significantly affect its course.

General Overviews

While there is still much yet to be learned about autism (e.g., its specific causes), much has been discovered about autism since Leo Kanner first used the term “infantile autism” in 1943, especially within the past decade. Consequently, the general overviews presented below are restricted to relatively recent publications. While older volumes continue to provide valuable information, they lack discussion of recent advances. In addition, the sampling of general overviews provided below strives to make use of books authored by internationally recognized experts (e.g., Simon Baron-Cohen, Uta Frith, Fred Volkmar). Contained within this specific listing are books that are appropriate for individuals relatively new to the study of autism (Frith 2008, Volkmar and Wiesner 2009) as well as those that might be more appropriate for professional or academic audiences (Baron-Cohen 2008, Tantam, 2012). Especially appropriate for scholars new to the field are the Internet resources (About Autism and, Autism Fact Sheet). A resource depicting what autism looks like is offered in the Video Glossary developed by the organization Autism Speaks. Finally, a firsthand account of what it is like to be a person with autism is offered in Grandin 2006.

  • About Autism. Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

    Offered by an organization run by and for persons with autism, this resource emphasizes the variability of the autism spectrum while at the same time offering some of autism’s common characteristics.

  • Autism Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

    Offers a concise review of the topic. Included in this bibliography because of its extensive listing of organizations from which additional information about autism can be obtained.

  • Baron-Cohen, Simon. Autism and Asperger Syndrome. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Authored by an internationally recognized autism expert (well regarded for his research into the very early identification of autism), this book provides discussion of the current understanding of autism. It includes an introduction to Baron-Cohen’s empathizing-systemizing theory of autism.

  • Frith, Uta. Autism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Authored by an internationally recognized autism expert, this book provides a concise overview of autism.

  • Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage, 2006.

    Authored by an internationally recognized animal scientist, this seminal book offers a first had account of what it is like to be autistic.

  • Tantam, Digby. Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Life Span. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2012.

    This book integrates current research on autism with best practices for the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of persons with this disorder. Its attention to issues across all developmental stages was an important factor in its inclusion in this list.

  • Video Glossary. Autism Speaks.

    Designed with the stated purpose of helping “parents and professionals learn more about the early red flags and diagnostic features of autism,” this web-based resource has more than one hundred video clips that demonstrate the differences between typical and atypical development. Also includes a section with videos of strategies or approaches designed to help children with autism.

  • Volkmar, Fred R., and Lisa A. Wiesner. A Practical Guide to Autism: What Every Parent, Family Member, and Teacher Needs to Know. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.

    Authored by internationally recognized experts, this general overview was written specifically for the caregivers of persons with autism. It provides an orientation to autism appropriate for the general public.

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