What Is Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a disorder of brain development characterized by difficulties with, (1) social communication, (2) social interaction, and (3) repetitive or restricted interests or behaviors. Though a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder always indicates symptoms in these three core areas, specific symptoms and the severity of these symptoms varies widely.

Communication Difficulties

Young children with autism tend to exhibit delays in babbling, learning to talk, understanding others’ language, and using communicative gestures like pointing, waving, or showing you things. Other children with autism are able to talk and understand simple instructions, but may only speak in single words or may simply repeat things they’ve heard others say. Some more mildly affected children may demonstrate more subtle delays in language, but have difficulty engaging in back-and-forth conversations.

Difficulty or an inability to communicate with others sometimes results in children with autism engaging in challenging behaviors such as tantrums or aggression in order to get their wants and needs met. Fortunately, effective treatment is now available to build communication skills and reduce and replace challenging behaviors.

Social Difficulties

Children with autism have difficulties with social interactions, ranging from a lack of interest in making friends, to having great interest, but lack of success in making and sustaining friendships. Many young children with autism have difficulty making eye contact, using gestures such as pointing, waving, or showing items to others, and imitating others’ actions. For example, most children by 18 months will imitate a variety of actions they see others engaging in such as wiping up a spill or sweeping, while this is often an area of difficulty for a child with autism. Children with autism also tend to have difficulties developing appropriate play skills and playing with others.

Many individuals with autism have difficulties taking another person’s perspective. Most children, by age 5, understand that other people have feelings, thoughts, and desires that may differ from their own. Children with autism often have difficulty understanding this, which makes it difficult to interpret others’ behavior.

Repetitive or Restricted Patterns of Behavior

Another core symptom of autism is engaging in repetitive and restricted patterns of behavior. Repetitive behaviors vary widely from child to child, but could include repetitive motor mannerisms such as wiggling fingers in front of the eyes, repetitive use of objects such as spinning the wheels of a toy car over and over, and repetitive speech such as repeating words or phrases over and over, often out-of-context.

Some children with autism excessively adhere to routines or rituals such as needing to take the same route to get to a location or eating the same food every day. Attempting to break these routines may lead to challenging behaviors such as tantrums or aggression. Insistence on sameness or routines may also manifest in difficulties with transitioning from one activity to another.

Children with autism may also have highly restricted, fixated interests such as preoccupations with unusual objects or topics such as vacuum cleaners, fans, or maps. Repetitive, fixated interests can also be seen in the way that some children with autism play with toys. For example, some children may line up toys like cars or dolls instead of using them for pretend play.