Overview of Autism

Despite Autism Awareness efforts and the growing Autism population, Autism Spectrum Disorder is still widely misunderstood. Considering there are more questions than answers or solutions surrounding the disorder, this makes sense. Even doctors and researchers who have dedicated their entire careers to Autism struggle to provide clear answers.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in social communication and interactions, and restricted and/or repetitive behaviors. To meet criteria for diagnosis the social impairments must be present in multiple environments and the child must exhibit at least 2 of the following patterns of behavior: repetitive movements, insistence on routine, obsession with a specific interest, and sensitivities to sensory input. Additionally, these symptoms must be noticed during early development and significantly impact functioning.

Why is it called a spectrum?

There are 3 levels of severity of ASD.

  • ♦ Level 1 ~ Mild – “Requiring support”*
  • ♦ Level 2 ~ Moderate – “Requiring substantial support”*
  • ♦ Level 3 ~ Severe – “Requiring very substantial support”*

*Quoted phrases are directly from the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5th Edition)

The symptoms for all 3 levels are described the same way—the deficits are just more noticeable and impairments more profound in levels 2 and 3. As you can see, the descriptions are unclear and subject to opinion—what qualifies as substantial vs VERY substantial?

Also, the spectrum includes multiple disorder:

  • ♦ Asperger’s Syndrome
  • ♦ Pervasive Developmental Disorder
  • ♦ Autistic Disorder
  • ♦ Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

Adding to the mystery of ASD is the fact that symptoms look different for everyone on the spectrum.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

Social Communication

  • ♦ Language impairments: Some people with ASD are considered nonverbal as they do not speak at all; Some may speak “oddly” using a tone and rhythm that differs from normal social conversation; Some fixate on certain topics and monopolize the conversation without following the social rules of conversation
  • ♦ Inability to use or understand cues
    • ◊ Gestures
    • ◊ Facial expressions
    • ◊ Tone of voice
    • ◊ Eye contact

Social Impairments

  • ♦ Inability to recognize emotions in themselves or others
  • ♦ No shared interest in topics
  • ♦ Difficulties with small talk
  • ♦ Difficulty to carry on a conversation with back and forth comments and questions

Repetitive/Restrictive Behaviors

  • ♦Stereotypy
    • ◊Rocking back and forth
    • ◊Flapping hands
    • ◊Lining up objects
    • ◊Repeating the same word or phrase
  • ♦ Rigidity
    • ◊ Ritual behaviors
    • ◊ Insisting on following the same routine—becoming extremely upset with any change
  • ♦ Perseveration
    • ◊ Fixation or obsession with an object, activity, or topic
  • ♦ Sensory Sensitivity
    • ◊ Overwhelmed by certain sounds, lights, textures
    • ◊ Seeks certain textures, movements, smells

Of course, the symptoms and severity look different for every person, so its difficult to list every symptom, or even compare your child’s symptoms to the list. Then, consider that many children with ASD also have additional disorders or delays—

  • ♦ Language delays
  • ♦ Motor delays
  • ♦ ADHD
  • ♦ Seizures
  • ♦ Intellectual disability
  • ♦ Fragile X syndrome

It’s easy to see why there are so many misconceptions surrounding ASD. There is no clear answer to the question, “What is Autism?”, which can make it extremely frustrating and confusing.

What about behaviors like aggression and meltdowns?

These are not symptoms of ASD, but your child’s way of coping with situations and events. Often these behaviors are an attempt at communication as they are struggling to express themselves appropriately.

What to do if you suspect your child has ASD

If you believe your child may have ASD, contact your pediatrician for an Autism Screening. This will generally lead to a referral to a specialist. Assessments will be conducted to determine if your child meets the diagnostic criteria.

Educate yourself. There are multiple organizations dedicated to providing you with knowledge and resources.


Begin treatment as soon as possible. Studies show that early intervention produces the best outcome for children with ASD.

There are multiple treatment options available, but the most widely recognized and recommended is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) due to decades of research proving its effectiveness. But every child is different. ABA works for the majority, but may not be for you. Do your research. Look into all treatments. Try them all. You will know which methods your child responds to, and what works best for your family.