Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are complex, lifelong, neurodevelopmental conditions of largely unknown cause. They are much more common than previously believed, second in frequency only to mental retardation among the serious developmental disorders. Although a heritable component has been demonstrated in ASD etiology, putative risk genes have yet to be identified. Environmental risk factors may also play a role, perhaps via complex gene-environment interactions, but no specific exposures with significant population effects are known. A number of endogenous biomarkers associated with autism risk have been investigated, and these may help identify significant biologic pathways that, in turn, will aid in the discovery of specific genes and exposures. Future epidemiologic research should focus on expanding population-based descriptive data on ASDs, exploring candidate risk factors in large well-designed studies incorporating both genetic and environmental exposure data and addressing possible etiologic heterogeneity in studies that can stratify case groups and consider alternate endophenotypes.