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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain disorder that starts early in life. It affects social communication and interaction and is accompanied by repeating and narrow patterns of behavior or interests.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Children with ASD often have problems with:

  • body language and eye contact
  • social interactions
  • building and maintaining relationships
  • sensory input
  • rigid behavior
  • intense and unusual interests

In toddlers, parents might notice:

  • delayed speech
  • using only a few gestures (waving, clapping, pointing)
  • not responding when someone calls their name
  • avoiding eye contact
  • not sharing enjoyment or interests with others
  • unusual ways of moving the hands, fingers, or whole body
  • being very focused or attached to unusual objects
  • little to no imitating of others or pretending
  • unusual sensory interests
  • rituals such as repeating things over and over or lining up objects

Milder symptoms may not be recognized until a child is older and has problems with:

  • forming friendships
  • pretend play
  • knowing how to act in different social situations
  • unusual, intense interests in specific topics or activities

No two people with ASD have the same signs and symptoms. Many things can play a role, such as language delays, thinking and learning problems, and behavioral challenges. For this reason, autism is described as a "spectrum."

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosed?

Public awareness of the signs of autism and new screening tools have made early identification of autism easier. Doctors look for signs and symptoms at every checkup, ask about concerns parents may have, and do a screening test at the 18-month and 2-year visits.

If any concerns are found, doctors will suggest a complete evaluation. This usually involves a team of experts. The team may include:

  • medical doctors who treat developmental disorders
  • psychologists
  • occupational therapists and speech therapists

They'll observe and evaluate the child to understand his or her language/communication, thinking, emotions, development, physical health, social skills, and self-help skills. They'll also ask the family about their concerns and the child's birth, growth, development, behavior, and family history.

What Causes ASD?

The exact cause of ASD is unknown. It's likely that many different things in combination lead to changes in the way the brain develops before a baby is born. The strongest evidence supports the role of a person's genes.

Other things, such as problems during pregnancy or at birth, might play a role. Many children with ASD also have an intellectual disability.

Vaccines do not cause autism.

How Is Autism Spectrum Disorder Treated?

The earlier treatment for kids with ASD starts, the better. Depending on a child's needs, treatment may include behavior therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, medicine, and extra help with learning. The goal is to help kids:

  • communicate better
  • play with others and learn social skills
  • lessen repetitive or bad behaviors
  • improve learning
  • be safe and take care of their bodies

Before Age 3

Before age 3, kids might be eligible for services through their state's early intervention program. Families work with a team of experts on an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan outlines goals and comes up with a treatment plan.

A team of therapists provides therapy at home or in daycare to eligible families.

Services may also be available in hospital-based clinics or in community centers. Insurance companies may reimburse for many services.

After Age 3

Kids ages 3 to 5 years old with ASD who qualify are entitled to free preschool services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Therapy and/or extra learning help is offered through local school districts or other learning centers — either at home or in a classroom.

When kids reach kindergarten age, parents can ask to switch to an individualized education program (IEP) through the local school district. An IEP can include learning goals along with behavioral, social, and self-care goals. Special education services are available until a child's 21st birthday.

Hospitals, medical centers, and clinics that provide children's health services often have services for kids with ASD. Both public and private behavioral health clinics may have specific services for them. Freestanding autism centers in the community may offer some services that benefit kids with ASD.

Sometimes medicines are used to treat symptoms like aggression, hyperactivity and inattention, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.

There isn't much research to show the benefits of many therapy approaches to ASD — such as diet changes; supplements; and music, art, and animal therapies. Tell your doctor and other team members about any other therapies you're using or considering so you can discuss the risks and possible benefits.

How Can I Help My Child?

If your child is diagnosed with ASD, many resources and support services can help. Your doctor and care team can point you in the right direction.

These age-specific autism checklists also can help guide you. Click a link to learn more:

Medically reviewed by: Diane E. Treadwell-Deering, MD
Date reviewed: March 2019