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What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment, or disability, that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, but others are severely disabled.

ASD is diagnosed according to guidelines listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Before 2013, autism disorders were identified by types: autistic disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Under the new criteria, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and PDD-NOS have been collapsed into a single diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

ASDs begin before the age of 3 and last throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may improve over time. Some children with an ASD show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms might not show up until 24 months or later. Some children with an ASD seem to develop normally until around 18 to 24 months of age and then they stop gaining new skills, or they lose the skills they once had.

A person with an ASD might:

  • Not respond to their name by 12 months
  • Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

Current estimates are that 1 in 110 children have an autism spectrum disorder. Many parents report that their child with an autism spectrum disorder was exhibiting difficulties prior to the age of two, but was not diagnosed until two to three years after concerning behaviors emerged. If you would like to schedule a screening for a child under the age of 3, call 650.688.3625 or email careteam@chconline.org

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