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What is autism?

By Amanda Morin

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.

Dive deeper

3 myths about autism

Myth #1: People with autism don’t feel empathy or emotions. In fact, they feel deep empathy and have strong feelings, but they may have a hard time showing it. 

Myth #2: People with autism can’t handle change. Predictable routines and structure help all people feel safe and comfortable. Change can cause anxiety. You may see perseveration (or “getting stuck”) when something unexpected happens.

Myth #3: People with autism don’t like to be touched. Autism and sensory processing issues commonly co-occur. Some avoid certain sensations and have a heightened sensitivity to touch and other senses. But others may seek out these sensations.

How the diagnosis has changed

For many years, autism was an “umbrella” diagnosis that covered:

  • Asperger’s syndrome

  • Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

  • Rett syndrome

  • Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD or Heller’s syndrome)

  • Autistic disorder

This changed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 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.)

Autism isn’t a learning disability, but it can affect learning. Find out more .

For caregivers: What to do next

For many kids, trouble with language development is a first sign of autism. Other common signs include:

If you’re concerned, talk with a health care provider. Share your concerns and what you’re seeing. There are many ways to support kids diagnosed with autism. You can also learn more by reading about the experience of raising kids with autism .

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Share What is autism?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom