top of page

Theories of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability affecting about 1 in 54 children in the United States. It can complicate significantly complicate the communicative, behavioral, and social abilities of those with the disorder (CDC, 2020).

Being a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with a developmental disorder can be challenging. This blog aims to help support all of you parents out there looking for some clarity regarding your child's diagnosis. This blog will focus on analyzing the different theories that attempt to explain ASD. Read on if you would like to learn more about the ones that are scientifically justified, and those that are not. Understanding the inner workings of the mind of a child with ASD may never be complete, however Ami Klin provided a very comprehensive explanation of the behaviors of children with ASD by saying, “they learn about the world by learning about it, rather than learning how to function in it.” (TED, 2012).

It goes without saying that it is not easy being a parent, but add on being a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or any other developmental disability for that matter), and it unveils a whole new world of unexpected complications and challenges that no parent is prepared for nor are they able to foresee. There are many theories out there that attempt to explain the causes of ASD, many of them supported by scientific evidence and some of which are highly inaccurate. Because the origin of ASD is unknown, this leaves much room for speculation as there is still so much still to be discovered on the disorder. Some of the wide variety of speculations can go from believing ASD is caused by vaccinations to thinking it is just a psychiatric disorder. Current research has revealed that the following are factors which can play a role in causing ASD, enzyme deficiencies, opioid exposure, gluten, sulfates in foods, fatty acids, and maternal stress.

Prenatal Stress

Let’s discuss prenatal maternal stress and its association with ASD. Research today indicates that ASD is caused by many biological factors, however there are some environmental factors at play as well. Maternal stress has also been found to be a causational factor in ASD (Beversdorf, Stevens, & Jones, 2018). Beversdorf, Stevens, and Jones (2018) discuss that while not always the end result, prenatal stress exposure was found to be linked to maternal immune dysfunction, which in turn is linked to ASD. It affects the neurodevelopment of children in utero by maternal autoantibodies targeting the fetal brain proteins.

Bettelheim’s “Refrigerator Mom” Theory

One infamous theory often referred to as the “refrigerator mom theory” by a child psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim explains ASD as being a result of mothers being unaffectionate and emotionally “cold” towards their children during the early stages of development (Meyer, 2010). Bettelheim experienced living in concentration camps as he was Jewish, and experienced many horrible things that provided insight into human behavior under extreme circumstances. He drew parallels between traumatizing events and children’s psychotic behavior, inferring that child psychosis was due to suppressed trauma (Meyer, 2010). This theory of course was found to be highly inaccurate and has since been discredited as a realistic cause for ASD.

ASD and Vaccines

Another popular (and impractical) theory attributes vaccines to be the cause of ASD in children. There is no scientific data supporting this theory and has caused many parents to believe that vaccinating their children will cause them to develop ASD (CDC, 2020). Another study involving children in their first two years of life and examined the substances found in vaccines that caused their immune systems to produce more antibodies (antigens) and found that the number of antigens from vaccines were the same among children without ASD and those with ASD.

Some believe that specific ingredients found in vaccines are thought to cause ASD, one of which includes thimerosal, which is a preservative agent used in many vaccines, but research has found no correlation between the ingredient and ASD (CDC, 2020). Due to the hype surrounding this ingredient, it has since been removed or significantly reduced as a precautionary measure to reduce the amounts of mercury exposure in children. It also supported disproving the theory that it was causing ASD since it was done before studies that aimed to prove that the ingredient was in fact not harmful.

Early Intervention

After discussing the many theories about ASD, Jonsdottir et al (2020) discussed how early intervention is imperative to setting your child on a positive developmental trajectory. If you are noticing signs or other indicators of ASD, it is best to intervene early and find support as soon as possible. ASD generally appears during infancy and early childhood. For some children, by 1 year in age, social-emotional communication deficits become observable, and become even more apparent between 14 and 24 months. Although this can be the case for some children, many others may reach developmental milestones then suddenly plateau, or their abilities may begin to digress by age 2, at which point a dependable diagnosis can be made. The reason early intervention is beneficial for children with ASD is because during the early years, their brain is more malleable, and the window of opportunity is present. Once children reach elementary school-age, that window of opportunity begins to close more and more the older the child gets.

Another beneficial step to take would be to spread awareness by informing and educating other parents and even health professionals on this disorder. Since there seem to be many contradicting theories out there, it would be helpful if the professionals who interacted with your children on a daily basis were trained on this matter along with helpful strategies when working with children with ASD. It was discovered that many health professionals who primarily work with young children had a knowledge base that was inadequate (Jonsdottir et al., 2020).

Many children with ASD miss out on early intervention and therefore miss out on opportunities to prevent significant developmental delays (CDC, 2020). If you think your child is showing signs of a developmental delay, you do not need to have an official diagnosis in order to request services right away (CDC, 2020). Remember, the earlier you intervene, the better developmental outcome for your child! Once your child turns 3, services are then offered through your local school system. Your child will be given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in order to customize your child’s education services as they will learn and process differently than the majority of other children in his/her school (CDC, 2020).


Once a child has been assessed and confirmed that they do have ASD, there are many different kinds of treatment options to take. Some of which include behavior analysis, social skills training, occupational therapy, physical therapy, assistive technology, and sensory integration therapy. They are then broken down further into the following groups, behavior and communication, dietary, medication, and complementary and alternative medicine (CDC, 2020).

Behavior and Communication Approaches

Behavior and communication approaches implement structured, organized, and family-involved support. Within that category, there is applies behavior analysis (ABA) which discourages negative behaviors and encourages positive behaviors in an effort to develop certain skills. Assistive technology involves using devices (such as a communication board, speech-generating device, or electronic tablet) to support with communication. Developmental, individual differences, relationship-based approach (A.K.A. “floortime”) works on social-emotional development and supporting the child in processing smells, sights, and sounds. Occupational therapy helps the child learn skills that involve everyday tasks such as dressing, eating, socializing, and showering. Social skills training helps children learn social skills necessary for interacting with other people, conversing, and problem-solving. Lastly, speech therapy works on developing the person’s language/communication abilities which can include verbal and nonverbal methods (CDC, 2020).

Dietary Approaches

Dietary approaches can sometimes help determine how a child acts and feels. Sometimes, certain foods are recommended to be removed or added to a child’s diet in order to ensure they are receiving the necessary vitamins and nutrients in order to best support their development (CDC, 2020).


ASD cannot be cured by medicine nor can it be used to treat the main symptoms. However, there are medications that can help treat other symptoms associated with ASD such as high energy, inattentiveness, and depression/anxiety. It is very important to consult with a professional who is experienced in treating children with ASD beforehand and also so they can closely monitor your child as they adjust to the medication. Not all medication affects everyone the same way (CDC, 2020).


At the end of the day, being a parent of a child with a developmental disability can be incredibly challenging, and it is important to always remember that you are doing your best and staying current with the research, as it is always changing. For more information, visit Take care!



Beversdorf, D. Q., Stevens, H. E., and Jones, K. L. (2018). Prenatal Stress, Maternal Immune Dysregulation, and Their Association with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20(9), 76.

Center for Disease Control (2020). Autism and Vaccines. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from

Jonsdottir, S. L., Saemundsen, E., Gudmundsdottir, S., Haraldsdottir, G. S., Palsdottir, A. H., & Rafnsson, V. (2020). Implementing an early detection program for autism in primary healthcare: Screening, education of healthcare professionals, referrals for diagnostic evaluation, and early intervention. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 77.

Meyer, W. S. (2010). Bruno Bettelheim and His Window to the Soul. Clinical Social Work

Journal, 38(3), 275.

TED (Producer). (2012). TedTalks: Ami Klin—A new way to diagnose autism [Video file].

30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page