Autism is a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears during early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects people differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism. Early diagnosis helps a person receive the support and services that they need, which can lead to an improved quality of life. In 2012 professionals in the United States stopped using previous labels of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and considered all of these diagnoses to fit under the broader diagnosis of autism.
Characteristics & Diagnosis
As we currently understand autism, the core features of autism are:
- Persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interaction across different environments
What this can look like: Being nonverbal or having atypical speech patterns, having trouble understanding nonverbal communication, difficulty making and keeping friends, difficulty maintaining typical back-and-forth conversational style
- Restricted and repetitive behavior, patterns, and interests
What this can look like: Repeating sounds or phrases (echolalia), repetitive movements, preference for sameness and difficulty with transition or routine, rigid or highly restricted and intense interests, extreme sensitivity to or significantly lower sensitivity to various sensory stimuli
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is used by clinicians to diagnose autism, these core features of autism must be present in early childhood but may not fully manifest until social demands exceed the person’s capacity to cope with them, and challenges may be masked by learned coping strategies.
To learn more about receiving an autism diagnosis, visit our page about diagnosis.
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.
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
To learn more about autism at every age, visit our page about Autism Through the Lifespan.
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