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April Is Autism Acceptance Month: What Is Autism?

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions related to brain development and characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 54 children in the United States has autism, and the occurrence of diagnosis is rising, most likely due to an awareness of autism and changes in the condition’s diagnostic criteria. April is a time to promote autism awareness and acceptance.

What Is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a lifelong developmental disability that appears in early childhood and can impact how a person responds to others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. ASD includes several conditions that were previously considered separate, such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder.

A majority of autistic children will show signs in their first year, with a small number appearing to develop without any signs until a period of regression starts sometime toward the end of their second year of life, between 18 and 24 months.

There is no cure for autism, but early treatment can improve lives significantly.

Characteristics and Diagnosis of ASD

Each child with ASD is different, displaying unique patterns of behavior and varying levels of severity. Some children have signs of difficulty learning, while others have high intelligence but struggle with communicating.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a child must have persistent deficits in three areas of social communication and interaction and at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors.

Persistent deficits in social communication include:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity
  • Deficits in nonverbal communication
  • Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities can include:

  • repetitive motor movements
  • insistence on sameness and routines
  • fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity
  • overactive or underactive responses sensory input

For more examples and specifics, see the CDC website on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Diagnostic Criteria.

Common Signs of ASD

Although the range of behaviors and severity differs among children with ASD, common signs include the following:

  • failure to respond to his or her name
  • resisting cuddling or holding
  • having poor eye contact and lack of facial expressions
  • not speaking, or having delayed speech
  • not being able to start a conversation or keep one going
  • speaking with abnormal tone or rhythm and may have a singsong voice or monotonal speech
  • repeating words or phrases verbatim but not understanding how to use them
  • not appearing to understand directions or simple questions
  • not expressing emotions or feelings and appearing unaware of others’ feelings
  • approaching a social interaction awkwardly, such as being passive, aggressive, or disruptive
  • having difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues
  • not pointing to or bringing objects to share interest

Behavior patterns can include:

  • performing repetitive movements, such as lining up toys
  • performing activities of self-harm, such as head banging
  • developing routines or rituals and becoming disturbed when they are off
  • having problems with coordination or making stiff or odd movements
  • being fascinated by details of an object, such as a spinning wheel
  • being unusually sensitive to light, sound, or touch but may be indifferent to pain or temperature changes
  • not engaging in make-believe play
  • fixating on an object or activity with intensity
  • having specific food preferences

Children with ASD may show fewer signs as they age and may lead normal or near-normal lives. Others may continue to struggle with language and social skills, which become especially noticeable in the teen years.

Discuss your concerns with your doctor if you notice signs in your child. These signs or symptoms may be rooted in other developmental disorders, so having a professional evaluation is necessary.

Although every child is different, developmental delays can be noticed at certain milestone ages, such as not responding to a smile or happy expression by age 6 months or not saying single words by 16 months. For a list of milestones, see the Autism Speaks Learn the Signs of Autism page.

Causes of ASD

There is no single known cause of ASD. Both genetics and environmental factors may be at play. There are several different genes that can affect the development of ASD, including Rett syndrome or fragile X syndrome. Genetic mutations also may increase the risk of ASD and affect brain development or the way brain cells communicate. Environmental triggers may include viruses, medications or complications during pregnancy, or air pollutants.

Both boys and girls can have ASD, but boys are four times more likely to develop the disorder than girls. Babies born significantly preterm (before 26 weeks) are at greater risk for ASD as well. There also may be a connection between children born to older parents, but not enough research has been performed to verify this.

Vaccines and Autism

Vaccines do not cause ASD. No reliable study has found a link. In fact, the original study that ignited the debate in 1998 by linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism was retracted 12 years after it was published in the British medical journal The Lancet. The General Medical Council in Great Britain ruled that the children in the original study (a group of just 12 children) were carefully selected and some of the research was funded by lawyers acting for parents involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers.

For more information on the retraction of the MMR study, see the National Institutes of Health article. 

Community Resources

Autism Speaks provides an extensive list of resources for families dealing with ASD. Visit the Resource Guide page and input your location to find every resource imaginable, from advocacy to health and medical to support groups to treatments and therapies.

The following additional support groups may be helpful to parents with children with ASD:

Herrick Library Resources on ASD

The following resources can be reserved and checked out from Herrick Library via curbside pickup or read on the Libby app in OverDrive, where indicated*:

  • All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism, by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer (picture book)
  • Autism and Your Teen: Tips and Strategies for the Journey to Adulthood, by Blythe Grossberg
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: What Every Parent Needs to Know, by Alan Rosenblatt
  • The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, by Temple Grandin
  • Far from the Tree (DVD)
  • *Raising Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders, by Rondalyn Whitney
  • *Spaghetti Is Not a Finger Food (and Other Life Lessons), by Jodi Carmichael (chapter book, ages 7–10)



Sources: Autism Society, What Is Autism?, https://www.autism-society.org/what-is/; Autism Speaks, What Is Autism?, https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism; CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Diagnostic Criteria, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html; CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Data & Statistics, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html; Mayo Clinic, Autism Spectrum Disorder, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928; NCBI, Lancet Retracts 12-Year-Old Article Linking Autism to MMR Vaccines, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831678/; Scientific American, The Real Reason Autism Rates Are Up in the U.S., https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-real-reasons-autism-rates-are-up-in-the-u-s/#:~:text=The%20Centers%20for%20Disease%20Control,five%20boys%20for%20every%20girl

Graphics: Can Stock Photo

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