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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others. It is a neurological disorder, which means it affects the functioning of the brain. The effects of autism and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.

Autism is usually first diagnosed in childhood. About one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism spectrum disorder is three to four times more common in boys than in girls.

Autism is most often a lifelong disorder, though there are more and more cases of children with ASD who eventually function independently, leading full lives. The information here focuses primarily on children and adolescents.

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism differs from person to person in severity and combinations of symptoms. There is a great range of abilities and characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders — no two children appear or behave the same way. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and often change over time.

Characteristics of autism spectrum disorder fall into three categories.


  • Communication problems: including difficulty using or understanding language. Some children with autism focus their attention and conversation on a few topic areas, some frequently repeat phrases and some have very limited speech.
  • Difficulty relating to people, things and events: including trouble making friends and interacting with people, difficulty reading facial expressions and not making eye contact.
  • Repetitive body movements or behaviors: such as hand flapping or repeating sounds or phrases.


Many children with autism are attentive to routines and sameness and have difficulty adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings or changes in routine. Many people with autism have normal cognitive skills, while others have cognitive challenges. Some are at greater risk for some medical conditions – such as sleep problems and seizures.


Diagnosis and Risk Factors


Early diagnosis and treatment are important to reducing the symptoms of autism and improving the quality of life for people with autism and their families. There is no medical test for autism. It is diagnosed based on observing how the child talks and acts in comparison to other children of the same age. Trained professionals typically diagnose autism by talking with the child and asking questions of parents and other caregivers.

Under federal law, any child suspected of having a developmental disorder can get a free evaluation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for developmental disorders at well-child preventive visits before age three.

If you have concerns that your infant or toddler is not developing normally, it is important to bring that concern to your primary care provider. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified possible red flags for autism spectrum disorder in young children, including:


    • Not responding to his/her name by 12 months of age
    • Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months
    • Not playing “pretend” games by 18 months


If there is a strong concern that your child is showing possible signs of autism, then a diagnostic evaluation should be performed. This typically involves an interview and play-based testing with your child done by a psychologist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, child psychiatrist or other providers.


Scientists do not clearly understand what causes autism spectrum disorder. Several factors probably contribute to autism, including genes a child is born with or environmental factors. A child is at greater risk of autism if there is a family member with autism. Research has shown that it is not caused by bad parenting, and it is not caused by vaccines.



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