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What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, behavioral, and communication challenges with a wide range of symptoms and severity. There is no physical difference in people with ASD that sets them apart, but they may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from many other people.


Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3 but some associated development delays can appear earlier. Some may develop typically for the first months or years of life, then withdraw, regress, or show aggression. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life.


Autism refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, limited and repetitive behavior, speech and communication. Each person with ASD has a unique pattern of behavior and level of severity, from low to high functioning. 


Several factors may influence the development of autism and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.


Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each individual has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some require significant support in daily life while others may need less and, in some cases, live entirely independently.

A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorder.

Possible "Red Flags" A person with ASD might show:


  • Not respond to their name by 12 months of age

  • Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months

  • Not play "pretend" games (eg: "feed" a doll) by 18 months

  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone

  • Have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings

  • Have delayed speech and language skills

  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)

  • Give unrelated answers to questions

  • Get upset by minor changes

  • Have obsessive interests

  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles

  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

If you are concerned that your child might have autism, access the free M-CHAT screening tool here

For more information about Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Causes and Risk Factors, and much more, visit the
 CDC, Autism Speaks, National Autism Association , TACA, and Mayo Clinic websites. May 2013 DSM-5 diagnostic manual.

* In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association merged four distinct autism diagnoses into one umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They included autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. 

Credit: CDC, Autism Speaks, The Mayo Clinic, TACA

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