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Definition, Symptoms, and What to Do


Autism / Autism Spectrum Disorder Definition:


This is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, behavioral, and cognitive challenges. The term "spectrum" in ASD refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity found within the disorder. Features include social deficits (difficulty forming relationships with other people), communication difficulties (challenges using language and abstract concepts), stereotyped or repetitive behaviors and interests, sensory issues, and cognitive delays.  

Symptoms of Autism Can Include:


  • Does not respond to name by 12 months of age.


  • Avoids eye-contact.


  • Prefers to play alone.


  • Does not share interests with others.


  • Only interacts to achieve a desired goal.


  • Has flat or inappropriate facial expressions.


  • Does not understand personal space boundaries.


  • Avoids or resists physical contact.


  • Is not comforted by others during distress.


  • Has trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about own feelings.


  • Delayed speech and language skills.


  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (Echolalia).


  • Reverses pronouns (e.g., says "you" instead of "I" or “you” instead of “he”).


  • Gives unrelated answers to questions.


  • Does not point or respond to pointing.


  • Uses few or no gestures (e.g., does not wave hello or goodbye).


  • Talks in a flat, robot-like, or sing-song voice.


  • Does not pretend in play (e.g., does not pretend to "feed" a doll or stuffed animal).


  • Does not understand jokes, sarcasm, or teasing.


  • Lining up toys or other objects.


  • Plays with toys the same way every time.


  • Likes parts of objects (e.g., wheels).


  • Is obsessively organized.


  • Gets very upset over minor changes.


  • Has obsessive interests.


  • Has to follow certain routines or becomes very upset.


  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins self in circles.


  • Hyperactivity (extremely active).


  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking).


  • Having a very short attention span.


  • Displaying unusual aggression.


  • Causing self-injury.


  • Temper tantrums.


  • Unusual eating habits (e.g., food aversions, etc.)


  • Unusual sleeping habits.  


  • Unusual mood or emotional reactions.


  • Lack of fear or excessive fear.


  • Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.




What to Do if You Think Your Child Has Autism


  • If your child is younger than 3 years old, you can contact your local Early Intervention Services (EIS) program directly to ask for a free evaluation. The program has 45 days to evaluate your child and, if appropriate, begin developing a treatment plan with your family. EIS for children younger than 3 is mandated by the federal government to help children who have developmental delays as soon as possible.


  • If your child is older than 3 years old, the federal government requires public school districts to provide free evaluations. Contact your child's doctor or your school district to request an assessment. The district must conduct an evaluation within 60 days of your request. (*However, states have different timelines for when the evaluation must be completed.)


  • If you have health insurance, contact your insurance provider. The services covered by insurance, and those provided by EIS or school districts are not necessarily the same. Early intervention is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, and the federal government provides grants for states to run their own programs.


  • When you have your child’s doctor do a developmental screening, the doctor may refer you to a (multidisciplinary) team for evaluations.




Following is a list of professionals who can give the actual diagnosis of autism:


  • Child Psychiatrist – Doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders in children.


  • Child Psychologist – Professional who assesses mental health problems and provides psychological care and intervention for children.


  • Developmental Pediatrician – Doctor who assesses suspected developmental delays in language, cognitive, and motor skills.


  • Pediatric Neurologist – Doctor who diagnoses and treats disorders related to seizures, muscular weakness, head injury, and development. 




Other professionals who may help assess a child’s skills and abilities and share findings with the evaluation team are: 


  • Speech-Language Pathologist – Assesses and treats verbal and nonverbal communication and pragmatics (social skills).


  • Occupational Therapist – Focuses on sensory issues, fine motor skills, play, and social and personal skills required for independent living.


  • Physical Therapist – Focuses on gross motor skills.






Mayo Clinic - Autism Spectrum Disorder


Centers for Disease Control (CDC) - Autism Spectrum Disorder 


BabyCenter - What to do if you think your child has autism. 


Super Duper Publications - “I Think My Child Has Autism. What Do I Do?”   

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