Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are terms for a disability characterized by impaired social skills, impaired speech, and repetitive behaviors. The signs of ASD usually appear in infancy or very early childhood. ASD consists of a spectrum of signs and symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Some Individuals demonstrate only mild signs of autism and function well, but others persons, with severe forms of ASD, may experience profound debilitation throughout their lives.

ASD is considered a single disorder that encompasses the following autism subtypes once thought to be separate conditions:

  • Autism (the most severe form of ASD)
  • Asperger syndrome (a form of ASD characterized by the same symptoms as autism, except the child’s speech and language skills are well developed)
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (a rare form of ASD characterized by normal early childhood development followed by a late onset of autism symptoms between ages 3 to 10)
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS (mild autism symptoms).

The prevalence of ASD is increasing, and 1 of 68 children has some form of the disorder. ASD is four times more common in males than females.

Causes and Risk Factors

The cause of ASD is still unknown, and there is no explanation for the increasing incidence of this disorder. Researchers have established that genetic factors are involved. Having a sibling with ASD significantly increases a child’s risk of also having ASD. Having older parents also increases a child’s risk of ASD. Certain medications taken during pregnancy may be linked to the disorder as well.


The signs of ASD start in infancy or early childhood and continue throughout life.

The predominant sign of ASD is impaired social interaction. Infants and children with ASD do not respond appropriately to other people. Such persons appear withdrawn and are often preoccupied with a single object.

Children with ASD commonly display the following signs and symptoms:

  • Inability to point at an object of interest by age 1
  • Lack of smiling or social interaction
  • Not speaking a single word by age 16 months or a two-word phrase by age 2
  • Poor eye contact
  • Withdrawn appearance
  • Failure to respond to their name
  • Impaired social skills and problems responding to others
  • Impaired language skills and difficulty participating in conversations
  • Difficulty understanding nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of interest in playing with other children and preferring to be alone
  • Repetitive behaviors such as rocking, twirling, biting, or self-injurious behaviors
  • Insistence on rigid routines and sameness
  • Repeatedly lining up toys in a row
  • Intense preoccupation with certain objects
  • Abnormal repetition of words or phrases
  • Seizures
  • Emotional disorders.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The hallmark findings of ASD are impaired social skills, limited language skills, and behavioral problems. Often, the signs and symptoms are unrecognized and the diagnosis is delayed. Frequently, ASD is mistaken for a hearing problem, because typically these patients do not respond to their name.

When ASD is suspected, a child requires a comprehensive evaluation by experts in human behavior, nervous system conditions, and speech disorders. This team of experts may include a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, and speech therapist. Each of these health care providers performs a special assessment to confirm the diagnosis.

There is no known cure for ASD; however, intensive therapies can significantly improve autism symptoms. The goals of treatment are to reduce or eliminate inappropriate behaviors, increase communication skills, strengthen social skills, and improve functioning in a community. Prompt diagnosis is essential, because early intervention provides better outcomes.

  • Behavioral interventions may substantially improve autism symptoms. Intensive therapy programs are designed to teach children with ASD a variety of rules, social skills, language skills, and behaviors that will improve their overall functioning.
  • Family therapy teaches family members how to properly interact with a child with ASD.
  • Medications may be beneficial for specific problems, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, uncontrolled behavioral issues, and seizures.


Ways to prevent ASD are as yet unknown; however, early intervention can substantially improve a child’s behavior. Intensive therapy allows many individuals with ASD to function well in their lives.


  • Autism Fact Sheet. National Institute Of Neurological Disorders And Stroke website. Accessed June 20, 2014.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Centers For Disease Control And Prevention website. Accessed June 20, 2014.
  • Behavioral Intervention For Children With Autism. Cleveland Clinic Children's website. Accessed June 20, 2014.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder. Mayo Clinic website. Accessed June 20, 2014.