What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. It is described as a spectrum disorder, which means that it manifests itself across a wide range of behaviors from mild to severe. The term “autism spectrum disorder” and the abbreviation “ASD” refer to autism (autistic disorder), Asperger Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. Except when specifically noted, our use of “autism” on this Web site refers to the three disorders included on the spectrum.

Autism is typically diagnosed by the age of three. The symptoms of autism involve three major areas of development and impact a child’s abilities to:

  • Engage in reciprocal social interactions with others
  • Communicate with others in developmentally appropriate ways; and
  • Participate in a range of activities and behaviors typical of the child’s age and stage of development

One of the hallmarks of autism is that the characteristics vary significantly among different children with autism. No two children with autism are the same.

Autism spectrum disorders are found in all cultures and across all socio-economic groups with the ratio boys to girls with ASD being 4 to 1. In the past 30 years the prevalence rate of ASD has skyrocketed. Recent prevalence estimates indicate that autism spectrum disorders occur in 1 out of every 68 children born, highlighting the facts that autism spectrum disorders are not rare and the importance of effective intervention is critical on a personal, familial and societal level.

Why the increase? No one knows for sure. Some epidemiologists point to a broader definition of autism and an increasing awareness among medical professionals as key contributing factors. Others consider the potential impact of environmental factors as a contributing cause. As more and more research is funded and completed this question may soon be answered.