Understanding Autism

What is autism?

People with autism have brains that work differently. They may learn differently. They may see, hear, feel, or smell things differently.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents differences and unique abilities that affect many areas of a person’s life. It is considered a spectrum disorder because its common characteristics affect each person in a different way and with a varying degree of intensity. It 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).

Most people simply use the term “autism,” now, rather than “ASD” or “autism spectrum disorder.”

Autistic people may have difficulty with things like:

  • Talking or making conversation
  • Playing with others
  • Controlling body movements
  • Understanding that people have different interests
  • Being comfortable with different sounds

Autistic individuals 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 or understand things.

Autistic children 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

Strengths of autistic children may include

  • Understanding pictures
  • Paying attention to one thing
  • Learning routines
  • Learning small bits at a time
  • Playing with people they know well

But they may have differences when:

  • Understanding words
  • Moving to new activities
  • Learning a new way to do things
  • Making new friends
  • Understanding that other people have different interests

Common questions about autism

Currently, no singular cause for autism 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 autism). Most researchers believe that there are likely many causes and variations of autism, 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 autism.

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 autism is likely the result of many interrelated and interacting factors given the complexity and the uniqueness of each individual. Autism is not caused by bad parenting or parental practices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2021) estimate that one in 44 children in the United States have autism. It is diagnosed approximately four times more commonly in males than females (CDC, 2021). Autism occurs in individuals of all races, ethnicities, social classes, and educational backgrounds.

According to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), autism/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 latest DSM includes a new and related diagnosis of social communication disorder (SCD).