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Autism Spectrum Disorder


What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

ASD is a range of developmental conditions that can make social interaction and communication challenging. Spectrum means signs and symptoms can vary from one child to another and range from mild to severe. ASD includes autism disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably with ASD.

What are the signs and symptoms of ASD?

Signs and symptoms usually start during the early developmental period, often by 3 years. Your child may not reach expected milestones. He or she may reach milestones but then lose skills that were gained. You may notice any of the following about your child, depending on the kind of ASD:

  • He or she does not interact with others. You may first notice your child does not respond to his or her name by 12 months. Your child may not point at objects or play pretend games such as dressing up. He or she may not want to make eye contact or play with other children.
  • Speech and language skills are different from children his or her age. Your child may have started speaking later or earlier than others his or her age. Language skills can range from no speech to highly developed speech. Your child may use large vocabulary words or complex sentences but speak in a halting, robotic tone. Your child may repeat words or phrases over and over. He or she may not know how to hold a conversation. For example, your child may say something not related to the topic discussed, or not respond at all.
  • Behavior is different from children his or her age. Your child may become upset by a change in routine or where an object is stored. He or she may have repeated motions, such as hand flapping, body rocking, or spinning in circles. Your child may focus on parts of an object, such as wheels on a toy car. He or she may focus heavily on certain topics and show no interest in others. Your child may also have problems tolerating light, sound, textures, or tastes.

How is ASD diagnosed?

Your child will be checked for other conditions that may look like ASD or occur with it. Some examples are anxiety, depression, and ADHD. If tests rule out other causes, the following can help diagnose ASD:

  • Screening is part of a well child visit. Screening means your child's healthcare provider will check for certain developmental delays. Screening for ASD usually happens at 18 to 24 months. Your child's provider may recommend more screening if your child's risk for ASD is higher. Examples include having a brother or sister with ASD or showing signs that make ASD likely.
  • Your child's healthcare provider will ask when he or she reached developmental milestones. Some examples are when your child began to reach for items or smile at others.
  • Healthcare providers may ask you and your child's teachers about your child's behavior at home and at school. They may watch while your child plays or talks with other children.

How is ASD managed?

Your child's healthcare provider may talk to you about levels of support for your child. This is based on challenges your child has with social skills, communication, and repeated behaviors. The level of support ranges from 1 to 3. Level 3 is the most support needed.

  • Early intervention may help your child learn and keep new skills. Early intervention begins before your child is 3 years old. Intervention may need to change many times during your child's life to help fit his or her needs. Providers will work with you and everyone who takes care of your child. This will help make sure everyone knows how to support your child.
  • Therapy may be recommended. The goal of therapy is to help your child feel confident and supported. Support may include social skill, behavior, speech, or physical therapy. Therapy may also help your child tolerate certain sounds and smells more easily.
  • Medicines may be needed. Medicines may be given to help decrease anxiety, repeated behaviors, or anger. Some children with ASD also have seizures. Your child may need medicine to control or prevent seizures.

How can I help support my child?

  • Keep a schedule. Your child may be comforted by routines. Introduce changes slowly. Make activity a part of your child's daily schedule. Regular exercise can help reduce your child's stress and anxiety.
  • Be patient. Your child will have an easier time calming down and communicating if you stay calm. You may feel frustrated if your child becomes upset often. It may help to take a short break. Make sure your child is safe and with a responsible adult before you step away.
  • Build on and celebrate your child's strengths. Help your child find activities he or she enjoys and does well. Your child may have amazing strengths, such as advanced abilities with music or math. Encourage your child to try new things, but do not force him or her. Encourage your child as he or she tries something new or gains new skills.
  • Talk to officials at your child's school. Your child may need support at school. He or she may need help feeling more comfortable in class. An individualized education program (IEP) may be used through high school graduation. The IEP identifies your child's learning needs and helps teachers understand how to help him or her learn. The IEP may help your child build skills he or she will need after high school.
  • Work with healthcare providers to create a meal plan for your child. If your child will eat only specific foods, work with healthcare providers to plan meals and snacks. Healthcare providers may suggest blending foods your child will eat with others he or she refuses. This may help your child get the nutrients he or she needs.
  • Have a bedtime routine. Sleep problems are common in children with ASD. Have your child go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day. This may help decrease sleep problems. You may want to install motion alarms in your house. These alarms will wake you if your child gets out of bed at night. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about other ways to help keep your child safe.

Where can I find support or more information?

  • Autism Speaks
    1 East 33rd Street, 4th Floor
    New York , NY 10016
    1 East 33rd Street, 4th Floor
    New York , NY 10016
    Phone: 1- 888 - 288-4762
    Web Address:
  • Autism Society of America
    4340 East-West Highway
    Bethesda , MD 20814-3067
    Phone: 1- 800 - 328-8476
    Web Address:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • Your child has a seizure for the first time.

When should I call my child's pediatrician?

  • Your child is taking seizure medicine but still has a seizure.
  • Your child swallows something that is not food.
  • Your child becomes depressed, or has new problems eating or sleeping.
  • Your child is eating poorly and is losing weight.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Ā© Copyright IBM Corporation 2018 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotesĀ® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorder

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