Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by impairments in social communication and interaction as well as repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities (sometimes including unusual sensory sensitivities or interests in sensory aspects of an individual’s environment).
ASD is considered to be pervasive that can present challenges that affect many areas of an individual’s life. Though individuals with ASD typically share common characteristics and challenges, ASD is considered a spectrum disorder because these characteristics affect each individual in different ways and to varying degrees of intensity.
People may use the term autism or ASD, but both mean autism spectrum disorder. People with autism spectrum disorder have brains that work differently. They may learn differently. They may see, hear, feel, or smell things differently. Those with ASD may have a harder time with things that are easier for other people. These can include:
- Talking or making conversation
- Playing with others
- Controlling body movements
- Understanding that people have different interests
- Being comfortable with different sounds
People with autism spectrum disorder aren’t sick. It’s not contagious. Individuals with ASD may have a hard time telling people what they are thinking or how they are feeling. Sometimes they may use pictures to help them talk and understand things.
Changes in Definition
Since the adoption of the DSM-5 in 2013, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now a single diagnosis that recognizes and encompasses the characteristics previously associated with autism disorder, Asperger’s disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Rett’s Disorder that used to be part of the spectrum was dropped from the DSM all together. Additionally, the DSM-5 includes a new and related diagnosis of social communication disorder (SCD).
Causes of ASD
Currently, no singular cause for ASD has been identified. Some studies have found patterns that can explain some of the occurrences though not all (e.g., irregular levels of neurotransmitters and differences in several areas of the brain have been noted among individuals with ASD). Most researchers believe that there are likely many causes and variations of ASD, where genetics (including 10 or more genes on different chromosomes) and environment play a role. Further research is necessary in determining the relationship between genetics and ASD.
Environmental factors may include certain viruses or particular drugs (such as thalidomide and valproic acid) being taken during pregnancy. Additionally, researchers continue to investigate possible neurological, infectious, metabolic, and immunologic factors, though ASD is likely the result of many interrelated and interacting factors given the complexity and the uniqueness of each individual with ASD. ASD is not caused by bad parenting or parental practices.
How Common is ASD?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2021) estimate that 1 in 44 children in the United States have ASD, with ASD diagnosed approximately four times more commonly in males than females (CDC, 2021). ASD occurs in individuals of all races, ethnicities, social classes, and educational backgrounds.
Children with autism spectrum disorder may…
- Say things over and over.
- Not want to share or play with you.
- Act like they can’t hear you.
- Move their bodies in ways that look different (rocking back and forth or flapping their arms or hands).
- Not understand how you feel.
- Become upset when even small things change.
Everyone is good at some things and not as good at other things. What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
Children with autism spectrum disorder have strengths…
- Understanding pictures
- Paying attention to one thing
- Learning routines
- Learning small bits at a time
- Playing with people they know well
…and weaknesses too!
- Understanding words
- Moving to new activities
- Learning a new way to do things
- Making new friends
- Understanding that other people have different interests
What is Autism? Video
Completed in 2012, this 20-minute video features stories of several individuals on the spectrum that reflect successes due to the support of their families and providers utilizing evidence-based strategies.
What viewers said about it…
“It was very comprehensive and realistic. Shows a great progression from pre-strategies to post strategies use. Very helpful to use in faculty meetings with all teachers in schools. Great to help parents understanding of why we use evidenced based practices in the schools and across community settings. I can’t wait to start using it.”
“It would be helpful for the schools, parents, providers, firefighters, police, pastors, doctors, nurses, etc.”
“I think the video could be used with any group interested in learning more about autism and in touch in some way with individuals with autism.”
- Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew
- NICHD – Autism Overview
- CDC Autism Spectrum Disorders Fact Sheet
- CDC Autism Fact Sheets
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Autism
Links to other resources
- AIM Project
- Autism Society of America
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- First Signs
- National Institutes of Health (NIH) – MedlinePlus
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- National Institute of Child Health & Human Development
- National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders
- National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Organization for Autism Research (OAR)