Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are defined as a group of complex and lifelong neurodevelopmental disorders which are characterized by varying degrees of pertinent deficits in two areas:

  • social communication and social interaction impairment; and
  • repetitive/restrictive behaviors.

Examples of deficits in social communication and social interaction include difficulties:

  • reciprocating and/or initiating social interactions,
  • establishing or maintaining relationships, and
  • engaging in age-appropriate social activities.

Examples of repetitive, restricted behaviors include:

  • repetitive speech,
  • insistence on sameness,
  • inflexible adherence to routines, and
  • having highly restricted, fixated interests that are atypical in intensity or focus.

This definition is based on the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published in May 2013. Anyone diagnosed with one of the four pervasive developmental disorders from DSM-IV are included in this definition.

In March 2014, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a new estimate for children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children have ASD, which is a 30 percent increase over the previous estimate of 1 in 88.

Although researchers continue to investigate the mechanisms responsible for ASD, its causes remain unknown. Recent research has found genetic gene mutations affect the structural, functional, and neurochemical differences in the brain may be associated with ASD symptoms.  

Signs and symptoms of autism tend to emerge in children before three years of age. Children do not "outgrow" ASD, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. Signs a child may have an autism spectrum disorder include:

  • Not responding to his or her name by 12 months of age,
  • Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months,
  • Not playing "pretend" games (pretending to feed a doll) by 18 months,
  • Avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone,
  • Having trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about his or her own feelings,
  • Having delayed speech and language skills,
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over (echolalia),
  • Giving unrelated answers to questions,
  • Getting upset by minor changes,
  • Having obsessive interests,
  • Flapping his or her hands, rocking his or her body, or spinning in circles, or
  • Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.