Autism

Also known as autism spectrum disorder

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that includes differences or challenges in social communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, speech, and intellectual ability.

The symptoms of autism vary widely in type and severity and are usually seen in early childhood. Some common symptoms include a need for sameness and repetition, anxiety, and atypical responses to sensory input, like unusual sensitivity to light, sound, smell, or taste.  

Most cases of autism are diagnosed through interviews, observation, and evaluations by a psychologist, developmental pediatrician, and pediatric neurologist. While there is no established cure, behavioral, educational, and family therapy may help reduce symptoms and build skills. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes autism?

    While certain medication exposures prior to birth, and a few rare genetic syndromes, may cause autism in a small percentage of cases, for most, the precise etiology remains unknown. Factors that increase the risk of having autism include being a male and having a family history of autism.

  • Is autism genetic?

    Genes most likely play a role in the development of autism. This is supported by research that children with a sibling with autism are more likely to develop it. That said, genetic factors are not the whole picture. Environmental factors are also linked to the development of autism.

  • Do vaccines cause autism?

    Vaccines do not cause autism. This is a fact that has been reaffirmed through numerous scientific studies and is robustly supported by the medical community.

  • What is autism spectrum disorder?

    In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version 5 (DSM-5) created just one diagnostic category for people with autism—called autism spectrum disorder. Therefore, everyone with autism, regardless of their specific symptoms, is now described as having autism spectrum disorder.

  • How is autism diagnosed?

    If a child has symptoms of autism, they will be seen by a team of professionals, including a child psychologist or psychiatrist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, and child neurologist.  The evaluation will include a medical history, physical exam, and testing of the child's social, language, and cognitive skills. Adults seeking a diagnosis will usually see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

  • What is high-functioning autism?

    High-functioning autism is not an official medical diagnosis and has many different definitions within the autism community. The problem with labeling a person with autism as high functioning, and thus closer to "normal" on the spectrum of functioning, is that the term may be misleading and undermine their need for support.

Key Terms

Page Sources
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  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Revised March 2018.

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association (APA). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5. Philadelphia, PA: APA; May 27, 2013.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Reviewed March 2020.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Developmental Disabilities. Reviewed September 2019.