What is autism?

At a glance

  • Challenges with social interaction and communication are common.

  • Autism can look different from person to person.

  • Autism may co-occur with ADHD and sensory processing issues.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others and the world around them. It’s lifelong — you don’t grow out of it.

Autism often co-occurs with other conditions, like ADHD and learning disabilities. They share common challenges with social skills and communication, including:

  • Trouble reading nonverbal cues or picking up “unwritten” social rules
  • Difficulty participating in conversation 
  • Not always being able to modulate (control how loud you speak, or in what tone)
  • Taking language literally and not always understanding puns, riddles, or figures of speech  

Another common sign is what’s known as stereotyped behavior. This may look like having a “special interest” around a certain topic or object. Or it can refer to repetitive behaviors and movements like:

  • Arm flapping or rocking (sometimes called stimming)
  • Repeating certain sounds or phrases (sometimes called echolalia)

There’s a lot of variation in how autism presents from person to person. Some people communicate by speaking. Others use nonverbal communication. There’s also a wide range in intellectual and self-care abilities. An autism diagnosis reflects this by using Support Levels of 1, 2, or 3. These levels show how much support a person needs, with 3 as the highest level.  

People talk about autism in different ways. Doctors and schools often use the term autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) and person-first language (“a person with autism”). Some people with the diagnosis prefer identity-first language and may call themselves autistic.

Rather than calling autism a disorder, some in the autism community embrace neurodiversity. This concept says conditions like autism are neurological variations that are simply part of human difference.

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