We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is a broad term used to describe a group of neurodevelopmental conditions.
These conditions are characterized by differences in communication and social interaction. People with ASD often demonstrate restricted and repetitive interests or patterns of behavior.
ASD is found in people around the world, regardless of race and ethnicity, culture, or economic background.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls. A study of 8-year-olds in 11 locations throughout the United States found a
There are indications that instances of autism are on the rise. Some attribute this increase to environmental factors. However, experts debate whether there’s an actual increase in cases or just more frequent diagnoses. Compare autism rates in different U.S. states.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Clinicians use it to diagnose a variety of psychiatric disorders.
The most recent fifth edition of the DSM was released in 2013. The DSM-5 currently recognizes five different ASD subtypes, or specifiers. They are:
- with or without accompanying intellectual impairment
- with or without accompanying language impairment
- associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor
- associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder
- with catatonia
Someone can receive a diagnosis of one or more specifiers.
Before the DSM-5, autistic people may have received a diagnosis of:
- autistic disorder
- Asperger’s syndrome
- pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- childhood disintegrative disorder
It’s important to note that a person who received one of these earlier diagnoses hasn’t lost their diagnosis and won’t need to be reevaluated.
According to the DSM-5, the broader diagnosis of ASD encompasses conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome. Learn more about Asperger’s syndrome and the other older classifications for autism.
Early symptoms may include a marked delay in language or social development.
The DSM-5 divides symptoms of ASD into two categories: problems with communication and social interaction, and restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior or activities.
Problems with communication and social interaction
These can include:
- issues with communication, including difficulties sharing emotions, sharing interests, or maintaining a back-and-forth conversation
- issues with nonspeaking communication, such as trouble maintaining eye contact or reading body language
- difficulties developing and maintaining relationships
Restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior or activities
These can include:
- repetitive movements, motions, or speech patterns
- rigid adherence to specific routines or behaviors
- an increase or decrease in sensitivity to specific sensory information from their surroundings, such as a negative reaction to a specific sound
- fixated interests or preoccupations
Autistic people are evaluated within each category, and the intensity of their symptoms is noted.
To receive an autism diagnosis, a person must display all three symptoms in the first category and at least two symptoms in the second category. Get more information on symptoms and how they may manifest in kids.
The exact cause of ASD is unknown. The most current research demonstrates there’s no single cause.
Some suspected risk factors for ASD include:
- having an immediate family member who’s autistic
- genetic mutations
- fragile X syndrome and other genetic disorders
- being born to older parents
- low birth weight
- metabolic imbalances
- exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins
- a history of viral infections
- fetal exposure to the medications valproic acid or thalidomide (Thalomid)
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), both genetics and environment may determine whether a person develops ASD.
A controversial 1998 study proposed a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. However, that study has been debunked by other research and was eventually retracted in 2010. Read more about autism and its risk factors.
An ASD diagnosis involves several screenings, genetic tests, and evaluations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children undergo screening for ASD at the ages of 18 and 24 months.
Screening can help identify ASD in children earlier than later. These children may benefit from early diagnosis and support.
The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a common screening tool many pediatric offices use. Parents fill out the 23-question survey. Pediatricians can then use the responses to identify children who may have an increased chance of developing ASD.
It’s important to note that screening isn’t a diagnosis. Children who screen positively for ASD don’t necessarily have it. Additionally, screenings don’t always detect every child who’s autistic.
Other screenings and tests
Your child’s physician may recommend a combination of tests for autism, including:
- DNA testing for genetic diseases
- behavioral evaluation
- visual and audio tests to rule out any issues with vision and hearing that aren’t related to ASD
- occupational therapy screening
- developmental questionnaires, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2)
Determining the diagnosis
A team of specialists typically makes the diagnosis. This team may include:
- child psychologists
- occupational therapists
- speech and language pathologists
Many approaches involve therapies such as:
Massages, weighted clothing and blankets, and meditation techniques may also help some autistic people manage symptoms. However, results will vary. Some people may respond well to certain approaches, while others may not.
Research on alternative remedies is mixed, and some remedies can be dangerous. These alternative remedies include things like:
- high-dose vitamins
- chelation therapy, which involves flushing metals from the body
- hyperbaric oxygen therapy
- melatonin to address sleep issues
Before investing in any alternative therapy, parents and caregivers should weigh the research and financial costs against any possible benefits.
When in doubt, it’s always best to talk with a healthcare professional. Learn more about alternative remedies for autism.
There’s no specific diet designed for autistic people. Nevertheless, some autism advocates are exploring dietary changes as a way to help minimize behavioral issues and increase overall quality of life.
An autism diet may instead focus on whole foods, such as:
Those advocates believe that gluten creates inflammation and adverse bodily reactions in certain autistic people. However, scientific research is inconclusive on the relationship between autism, gluten, and another protein known as casein.
Some studies, and anecdotal evidence, have suggested that diet can help improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that may be similar to autism. Find out more about the ADHD diet.
Autistic children may not reach the same developmental milestones as their peers, or they may demonstrate the loss of previously developed social or language skills.
For instance, a 2-year-old without autism may show interest in simple games of make-believe. A 4-year-old without autism may enjoy engaging in activities with other children. An autistic child may have trouble interacting with others or dislike it altogether.
Autistic children may also engage in repetitive behaviors, have difficulty sleeping, or compulsively eat nonfood items. They may find it hard to thrive without a structured environment or consistent routine.
If your child is autistic, you may have to work closely with their teachers to ensure they succeed in the classroom.
Many resources are available to help autistic children as well as their loved ones. Local support groups can be found through the national nonprofit The Autism Society of America.
Autism and exercise
Autistic children may find that certain exercises can play a role in alleviating frustrations and promoting overall well-being.
Any type of exercise that your child enjoys can be beneficial. Walking and simply having fun on the playground are both ideal.
Swimming and being in water can serve as both exercise and a sensory play activity. Sensory play activities can help autistic people who may have trouble processing signals from their senses.
Sometimes contact sports can be difficult for autistic children. You can instead encourage other forms of challenging yet strengthening exercises. Get started with these tips on arm circles, star jumps, and other autism exercises for kids.
Because of its greater rate in boys, ASD is often stereotyped as a “boys’ disease.”
According to a 2020 study of 11 regions throughout the United States, ASD is
A 2017 literature review concluded that the male-to-female ratio for autistic youth was actually closer to 3 to 1.
Either way, this doesn’t mean that ASD doesn’t occur in girls. ASD may simply present differently in girls and in women.
In comparison to recent decades, ASD is now being tested earlier and more often. This leads to higher reported rates in both boys and girls.
Families who have autistic loved ones may worry about what life with ASD looks like for an adult.
Some autistic adults go on to live or work independently. Others may require continued aid or support throughout their lives. Each autistic person is different.
Introducing therapies and other remedies early in life can help lead to more independence and better quality of life.
Sometimes autistic people don’t receive a diagnosis until much later in life. This is due, in part, to a previous lack of awareness among medical practitioners.
It’s never too late to receive a diagnosis, though. Read this article if you suspect you have adult autism.
April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. April has also become known as Autism Awareness Month in the United States. However, many community advocates have rightly called for the need to increase awareness about ASD year-round, and not just during 30 select days.
The Autism Society of America and other advocates have even proposed that April be designated Autism Acceptance Month instead.
Autism acceptance requires empathy and an understanding that ASD is different for everyone.
Certain therapies and approaches can work for some people but not others. Parents and caregivers can also have differing opinions on the best way to advocate for an autistic child.
Understanding autism and autistic people starts with awareness, but it doesn’t end there. Check out one father’s story on his “frustrations” with autism awareness.
Autism and ADHD are sometimes confused with one another.
Despite some similarities, ADHD isn’t considered a spectrum disorder. One major difference between the two is that people with ADHD don’t tend to lack socio-communicative skills.
It’s also possible for a person to have both autism and ADHD. Explore the relationship between autism and ADHD.
The most effective therapies involve early and intensive behavioral support. The earlier a child is enrolled in these programs, the better their outlook will be.
Remember that ASD is complex, and that it takes time for an autistic person — whether a child or adult — to find the program best suited for them.