What Is Autism?

What Is Autism?


Autism is a developmental disability that affects communication, social interaction, and sensory-motor systems. Symptoms, which can range from mild to severe, include difficulty with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that includes differences or challenges in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and intellectual ability. Symptoms and severity vary widely. Most cases are diagnosed in childhood and last throughout life. And while there is no established cure for autism, behavioral, educational, and family therapy may help reduce symptoms and build skills.

Autism Symptoms

While the severity of symptoms can vary from one individual to the next, there are certain traits that are common to all people with autism. Lack of social reciprocity is one core trait. This can range from a complete disinterest in other people, to a person who has difficulty making and sustaining conversation. Early signs include lack of eye contact, failure to respond to one’s name, and lack of interest in typical baby-caregiver games such as peek-a-boo. Typically developing babies are hard-wired to be interested in people. They will turn towards people, watch what they do, and interact using gestures and sounds. Children who are later diagnosed with autism tend to be more interested in objects.

Another sign is difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. Some people with autism are unable to speak at all. Others can talk, but have difficulty with conversation and social interaction. Some children with autism never develop speech at all. Others start to use words, then suddenly stop. And some develop speech normally, but only want to talk about a limited range of topics. Most will also show a delay or lack of non-verbal communication, such as gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it is possible to be mildly, moderately, or severely autistic. Confusingly, you can also have a combination of mild and severe symptoms. For example, it is possible to be very intelligent and verbal, but also have severe symptoms of anxiety and sensory dysfunction.

Severe forms of autism can be very difficult to manage because they can come along with aggressive behaviors and extreme communication challenges. But high-functioning autism is often accompanied by mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive behaviors, serious sensory dysfunction, and even depression.


In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its ADDM autism prevalence report. The report concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 59 – twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125. The spotlight shining on autism, as a result, has opened opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve people on the autism spectrum and their families.

Although autism impacts people regardless of race or ethnicity, there are racial and ethnic disparities in diagnosis. According to the CDC, ADDM reports have consistently noted that more white children are identified with ASD than black or Hispanic children. Previous studies have shown that stigma, lack of access to healthcare services due to non-citizenship or low-income, and non-English primary language are potential barriers to the identification of children with ASD, especially among Hispanic children. A difference in identifying black and Hispanic children with ASD relative to white children means these children may not be getting the services they need to reach their full potential.

This ADDM report found that the racial and ethnic differences in identifying 8-year-old children with ASD persist, but also some indications that the differences may be narrowing.

Currently, boys are also approximately 4.5 times more likely to have an autism diagnosis than girls of the same age. However, recent research suggests that girls may not show autism in the same way as boys and might go undiagnosed because of that.

Early Signs

Autism impacts an individual throughout the lifespan. However, research shows that early diagnosis can lead to improved quality of life. For more information on developmental milestones, visit the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early” site. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Speaks later than typical or not at all (nonverbal)
  • Repetition in language or movement, such as repeating the same word or sounds, hand flapping, or any repeated movement
  • Atypical nonverbal communication, including avoiding eye contact, giving few facial expressions, or having a monotone
  • Prefers solitary or parallel play rather than engaging in associative or cooperative play with other children
  • Extremely distressed by changes, including new foods or changes in schedule
  • Preference for predictable, structured play over spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Strong, persistent interest on specific topic, part of a toy, or item


Scientists have yet to discover a cause for autism, though there are several theories. Most would agree that there is some genetic component, though the increasing rates of the disorder suggest that there must be some environmental factors as well. Some parents, including actress Jenny McCarthy, have felt that childhood vaccinations triggered their child’s autism, but this theory has not been proven by any rigorous scientific research. In fact a dozen peer review research studies have clearly indicated that vaccines do not cause autism. Studies have suggested links to environmental toxins, but no definitive cause has been discovered yet.__