The Center for Disease Control estimates that one out of every 88 children has some type of autism[1]. Autism can be a seriously limiting condition if it is not managed appropriately when children are young, so it’s important to get an early diagnosis. About 30 percent of children with autism have impaired mental functioning; all people with autism can benefit from interventions at an early age.[1]

Definition of Autism

Autism is an umbrella term used to describe a number of conditions that exist along a spectrum. Spectrum disorders range from mild to severe; some autistic people have severe limitations, while others appear to be able to function normally or even have superior abilities. All people with autism have difficulties with social and communication skills because their brains process information differently than non-autistic people’s brains do.[1]

Types of Autism

There are three main types of autism as of the time of publication.

  • Autistic disorder, also known as “classic autism” or “Kanner’s autism.” This type of autism is what most people think of when they hear the word “autistic,” according to the Center for Disease Control[1]. People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays. They may not speak until the age of six or seven, and some people with this type of autism do not speak at all. People with autistic disorder often have an obsessive interest in certain items and may display behaviors such as rocking, flapping their hands and making strange noises. Some people with this type of autism have corresponding intellectual disabilities.
  • Pervasive development disorder, non-specified (PDD-NOS). This type of autistic spectrum disorder is often puzzling to parents and doctors. Children with this type of autism often develop normally until the age of 24 months, then stop speaking and revert to earlier behaviors. Their behavior after the age of 2 resembles that of people with classic autism.
  • Aspergers Syndrome. People with Aspergers Syndrome usually hit developmental milestones for speech and language and may even have a superior vocabulary. These children, however, have difficulty understanding social rules, motor impairments and difficulty reading body language. They may also take language literally and have a hard time with metaphors. They often engage in repetitive or obsessive behaviors.

Signs and Symptoms of Autism

All people with autistic spectrum disorders display signs of autism by the age of three. Children with classic autism and PDD-NOS usually do not begin talking by the age of 2. All children with autism have social difficulties beginning very early on in life. For example, young children with autism will play by themselves or engage in parallel play rather than interacting with other children. Play may also be very repetitive, and children may have obsessions with certain toys or types of play.[2]

Parents should watch for symptoms such as the following:

  • No babbling or pointing by age 1
  • No response to name
  • Poor eye contact
  • Not saying any words by 16 months and not making simple sentences by age 2.
  • Obsessively lines up toys or objects rather than playing with them.
  • No smiling.

Later on in life, children with autism may cling rigidly to routines and get extremely upset when their routine is changed. They may also have difficulties maintaining conversations and display an obsessive interest in one or two topics[2].

Causes of Autism

The exact cause of autism is unknown. Scientists believe that there is a genetic component to autism, as the disorder tends to run in families. In addition, there may be environmental influences on autism. In particular, there may be abnormalities in the womb that interfere with brain growth and cause the fetus’ brain to develop in an autistic manner rather than a neurotypical manner[2].

Effects of Autism

Autism is often difficult for both the autistic person and their caregivers, particularly if the autistic child is non-verbal. Non-verbal children tend to express frustration by screaming, hitting, kicking and spitting. Early intervention has been shown to help children communicate verbally and reduce negative behaviors.[1]

Treatments for Autism

There is no cure for autistic spectrum disorders. Doctors diagnosis the disorder based on the child’s behavior and create a treatment plan based on those symptoms.[1]

Children with all types of autistic spectrum disorders benefit from early intervention. Speech therapy and behavior modification therapy can help these children communicate and behave more appropriately. Once children with autism reach school age, they may need accommodations such as small classrooms, extra time to complete assignments and clearly labeled areas of the classroom in order to function well.

Controversies Surrounding Autism

There have been controversies over what constitutes an autistic spectrum disorder, what its causes are, and what treatments are best.

  • The DSM-V plans to eliminate the listing of Aspergers Syndrome as a separate disorder and list all forms of autism as “autistic spectrum disorder.”
  • There is an anti-vaccination movement based on the idea that vaccinations cause autism. Although there is no scientific evidence of a link between autism and childhood vaccinations, some people are reluctant to vaccinate their children because they believe vaccinations cause autism.[2]
  • Some people in the autistic community do not consider autism to be a disabling condition and object to attempts to find a cure for autism.


  1. Facts about Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 29, 2012). Retrieved July 16, 2012, from
  2. Autism Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders. (May 4, 2012). Retrieved July 16, 2012, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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