The broad variation in phenotypes and severities within autism spectrum disorders suggests the involvement of multiple predisposing factors, interacting in complex ways with normal developmental courses and gradients. Identification of these factors, and the common developmental path into which they feed, is hampered by the large degrees of convergence from causal factors to altered brain development, and divergence from abnormal brain development into altered cognition and behaviour. Genetic, neurochemical, neuroimaging, and behavioural findings on autism, as well as studies of normal development and of genetic syndromes that share symptoms with autism, offer hypotheses as to the nature of causal factors and their possible effects on the structure and dynamics of neural systems. Such alterations in neural properties may in turn perturb activity-dependent development, giving rise to a complex behavioural syndrome many steps removed from the root causes. Animal models based on genetic, neurochemical, neurophysiological, and behavioural manipulations offer the possibility of exploring these developmental processes in detail, as do human studies addressing endophenotypes beyond the diagnosis itself.