What is Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Characteristics include repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. Together these issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a single disorder that encompasses several disorders previously diagnosed separately:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Childhood disintegrative disorder
  • Rett syndrome[1]

What-is-autism-spectrum-disorderAutism spectrum disorders affect one out of every 68 children in the United States and occur more frequently among boys than girls. The occurrence of ASDs appears to be on the rise, however, it is unknown if this is a real increase in the number of diagnoses or improved detection of the disorder.[2]



Signs/Symptoms of autism spectrum disorders

People with ASD exhibit a wide range of symptoms and their severity, ranging from gifted to severely challenged. For some children symptoms can be noted at birth or shortly thereafter, however other children may not show any signs until two or three years of age.

In general symptoms for autism spectrum disorder fall into two categories:

  • Social impairment/communication
  • Repetitive/stereotyped behaviors

When developing skills in these areas, children with ASD do not follow typical patterns. Parents are the first to notice their child’s unusual behaviors.[3]

Common ASD actions and behaviors based on the two categories noted above include:

Social communication/interactions

  • Fails to respond to name
  • Resists cuddling/holding and prefers to play alone
  • Poor eye contact/lack of facial expression
  • Doesn’t speak/delayed speech or loss of previous ability to say words
  • Speaks with abnormal tone/rhythm – singsong or robot like speech
  • Repeats words/phrases verbatim
  • Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions/directions
  • Doesn’t express emotions/feelings
  • Inappropriately approaches others by being passive, aggressive or disruptive


  • Performs repetitive movements – rocking, spinning, hand flapping or activities that are harmful – head banging
  • Develops specific routines/rituals and becomes disturbed with the slightest change
  • Moves constantly
  • Can be uncooperative/resistant to change
  • Has problems with coordination or odd movement patterns – clumsiness, walking on toes, stiff/exaggerated body language
  • May be fascinated by details of an object – spinning wheels of a toy car
  • Unusual sensitivity to light, sound, touch but oblivious to pain
  • Abnormal fixation on an object or activity
  • Odd food preferences

The majority of children with ASD are slow to gain knowledge/skills and may have lower than normal intelligence. Children with normal to high intelligence can learn quickly but have trouble communicating, applying knowledge to everyday life and adjusting to social situations. A small number are savants with exceptional skills in a specific area, such as math, art or music.

As children with autism spectrum disorder age, some show improvement in their social interactions and have fewer behavioral issues. Those with the least severe problems can eventually lead normal or near normal lives. Others continue to have difficulties throughout their lives.[4]

I am ending this article here as it will be the first to cover the topic of autism spectrum disorder. Due to the complex nature of ASD, I do not want to leave out essential information. This month the introduction and signs/symptoms have been provided. Upcoming articles will provide additional information including causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

[1] Mayo Clinic Website. “Autism Spectrum Disorder”. June 3, 2014

[2] WebMD. “Autism Spectrum Disorders”. Reviewed May 12, 2013

[3] National Institute of Mental Health Website. “Autism Spectrum Disorder”.

[4] Mayo Clinic Website. “Autism Spectrum Disorder”. June 3. 2014.