At a Glance
People with autism struggle with social interaction, sensory processing, and communication.
Autism can look different from person to person.
A few years ago, the official definition of autism changed—Asperger’s is no longer a diagnosis.
When kids struggle in school or in life, their challenges don’t always fit into a neat box. One example of this is autism spectrum disorder (or ASD). Kids with autism can struggle in many ways. They may have trouble with social interaction, sensory processing, and communication, among other things.
But they aren’t the only kids with these kinds of challenges. Many kids who learn and think differently also have these difficulties. Autism often co-occurs with other conditions, like ADHD and learning disabilities.
Here’s what you need to know about autism.
An Overview of Autism
Doctors define autism in a specific way. It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how kids process certain types of information. Autism is lifelong. You don’t grow out of it.
People with autism tend to have common challenges.
Trouble with social skills. This is a hallmark of autism. Many people have trouble recognizing and responding to other people’s feelings. They struggle to “read” nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions. Some kids (and adults) can be very literal and don’t always understand puns, riddles, or figures of speech. They might also have trouble with “unwritten” social rules—like saying “hi” back to others when they say “hi.”
Language and communication challenges. For many kids, trouble with language development is a first sign of autism. Many struggle to express themselves and participate in conversation. Some also can’t control how loud they speak, and with what tone.
It’s a myth that people with autism don’t feel empathy or emotions. In fact, they can feel deep empathy and have strong feelings—but they may have a hard time showing it.
Sensory processing. It’s common for people with autism to have trouble taking in and responding to sensory information. They may seek out or avoid certain sensations, or have a heightened sensitivity to light, sound, touch, taste, or other senses. This can also lead to sensory overload and meltdowns.
Executive functioning. This set of mental skills helps us plan, set goals, and get things done. It’s a frequent trouble spot with autism. One common challenge is with flexible thinking, or the ability to think in new ways about a problem.
Motor planning problems. Some people with autism struggle with motor skills. So they may seem clumsy and uncoordinated. Kids may have trouble with things like handwriting, riding a bike, catching a ball, or running.
Along with these challenges, people with autism also tend to have common behaviors or traits:
Passionate, narrow interests. This “special interest” is usually around a certain topic or object. It can be anything from knowing all the details of a certain period in history to being especially interested in cars. Often kids are captivated by a type of toy, like LEGO train sets.
Repetitive behaviors and movements. Physical behaviors like arm flapping or rocking (sometimes called stimming) are common. Some might also repeat certain sounds or phrases.
A need for routine and consistency. Predictable routines and structure help people feel safe and comfortable. A change in the way things usually go, like schedule changes during a school vacation, can cause anxiety and discomfort. People with autism may perseverate or “get stuck” on a topic or an idea when something unexpected happens.
While autism has common traits, it’s a spectrum. There’s a lot of variation in how autism looks from person to person. Some people with an autism diagnosis 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 to show how much support a person needs. A 3 means that a person needs a high level of support, while a 1 means less support is needed.
One of the best-known people in the autism community is Temple Grandin, a renowned animal behavior expert. She gives speeches, travels the world, and can navigate society with some support. However, many others with autism need daily care and support. But they all have the same diagnosis.
It’s important to know that different people talk about autism in different ways. Doctors and schools use the term autism spectrum disorder (or ASD), or a person with autism. However, people with the diagnosis may call themselves autistic.
Rather than calling autism a disorder, some in the autism community call it neurological variation. They embrace neurodiversity. This concept says conditions like autism aren’t “abnormal.” They’re simply part of human difference.
How the Diagnosis of Autism Has Changed
For many years, autism was an “umbrella” diagnosis covering several different conditions:
Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD or Heller’s syndrome)
Although there was some overlap of signs and symptoms, these were separate diagnoses.
This changed in 2013, with the publication of the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The manual gives professionals the criteria needed to make a diagnosis. In the DSM-5, Asperger’s syndrome, PDD-NOS, and CDD are no longer listed as diagnoses. There is only one diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder.” (Rett syndrome is now listed as a separate genetic disorder.)
What You Need to Know Next
When a baby or toddler is late to talk or move about, it’s common for families to be concerned. But just because a child is delayed doesn’t mean a child has autism or any other condition.
There are many ways to support kids diagnosed with autism. Many people with autism are thriving in school, in life, and in their communities.
If you’re concerned, talk to your child’s health care provider. Share what you’re seeing with your child and how you feel. You can also learn more by reading about the experience of raising kids with autism.
Traits like narrow interests and repetitive behaviors are common in autism.
The amount of support needed varies from person to person.
Many people with autism thrive in school, in life, and in their communities.