Autism spectrum disorders are defined as a group of complex and lifelong neurodevelopmental disorders which are characterized by varying degrees of pertinent deficits in two areas:
- Social communication and social interaction impairment
- Repetitive/restrictive behaviors
Examples of deficits in social communication and social interaction include difficulties:
- Reciprocating and/or initiating social interactions
- Establishing or maintaining relationships
- Engaging in age-appropriate social activities
Examples of repetitive, restricted behaviors include:
- Repetitive speech
- Insistence on sameness
- Inflexible adherence to routines
- Having highly restricted, fixated interests that are atypical in intensity or focus
This definition is based on the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published in May 2013. Anyone diagnosed with one of the four pervasive developmental disorders from DSM-IV are included in this definition.
In 2021, the Center for Disease Control released an updated estimate for children with an autism spectrum disorder. About 1 in 44 children has been identified with ASD, according to estimates from a 2018 study from the CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network which monitored children at eleven sites across the U.S.
Although researchers continue to investigate the mechanisms responsible for ASD, its causes remain unknown. Recent research has found genetic gene mutations affect the structural, functional and neurochemical differences in the brain that might be associated with ASD symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Autism
Signs and symptoms of autism tend to emerge in children before age 3. Children don't "outgrow" ASD, but studies show early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. Signs a child might have an autism spectrum disorder include:
- Not responding to his or her name by 12 months
- Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months
- Not playing "pretend" games (pretending to feed a doll) by 18 months
- Avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone
- Having trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings
- Having delayed speech and language skills
- Repeating words or phrases over and over
- Giving unrelated answers to questions
- Getting upset by minor changes
- Having obsessive interests
- Flapping his or her hands, rocking his or her body, or spinning in circles
- Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel.