Understanding Autism

Did you Know? 

The diagnosis of autism has been estimated to occur in 1 in 59 individuals, is five times more prevalent in males than females.

Learn more about Easterseals autism services for children and adults, and their families.

Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The condition traditionally called "autism" is part of a set of five closely related conditions which all share symptoms and fall under the broad diagnostic umbrella of "Pervasive Developmental Disorders." They each share three primary symptoms of impaired social interaction, impaired communication, and characteristic behavior patterns. Following is a brief summary of the conditions:

Autistic Disorder — Occurs in males four times more than females and involves moderate to severe disturbances in communication, socialization and behavior.

Rett's Disorder — Diagnosed primarily in females who exhibit typical development until approximately 18 months when children begin to regress especially in terms of motor skills and loss of abilities in other areas. A key indicator of Rett's Disorder is the appearance of repetitive meaningless movements or gestures.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder — Involves a clear regression in multiple areas of functioning including motor skills, bladder control and social skills following two years of normal development.

Asperger's Syndrome — A diagnostic label that was previously utilized to describe a person with an ASD who did not have a language delay or any co-occurring intellectual disability. Asperger's syndrome was typically diagnosed later in life than other disorders on the spectrum, persons with Asperger's syndrome usually function in the average to above average intelligence range and have no delays in language skills. Deficits appear most often in the areas of social skills, concentration and coordination.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified — Includes children that do not fully meet the criteria for the other specific disorders or those that do not have the degree of impairment associated with those disorders.


Individuals with autism interact with others differently. They may have difficulty understanding and expressing emotion, and may express attachment in a different manner.

Approximately 40 percent of individuals with autism do not develop effective spoken language. Others have echolalia, a parrot-like repeating of what has been said to them. Persons with autism often have difficulty understanding the nonverbal aspect of language such as social cues, body language and vocal qualities (pitch, tone and volume).

Individuals with autism typically have difficulty relating to objects and events and a great need for "sameness" which makes them upset if objects in their environment or time schedules change. Children with autism may not "play" with toys in the same manner as their peers and may become fixated to specific objects.

Persons with autism may greatly overreact to sensory stimuli that they see, hear, touch, feel or taste. They may also not react at all to various stimuli from the environment.

Children with autism often have a different rate of development especially in the areas of communication, social and cognitive skills. In contrast, motor development may occur at a typical rate. Sometimes skills will appear in children with autism at the expected rate or time and then disappear.

Autism is a lifelong disability that is generally diagnosed before the age of three years old. However, often children are misdiagnosed or not diagnosed until later in life.

Common Interventions and Treatments

A basic rule for treating autism is the earlier the intervention, the better. Coordinated, structured services that take into account the "whole person" and the person's family are most likely to be successful. Locate an Easterseals near you for services in your area.


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science in which the principles of the analysis of behavior are applied systematically to improve socially significant behavior..


Speech therapy includes specialized therapeutic services designed to assist individuals with autism in verbal and non-verbal communication development.

Picture Exchange Communication System is a functional communication training approach that emphasizes teaching students to give a picture of something they desire to another person in exchange for that item.

Augmentative Devices includes communication aids such as electronic devices that are often used to support communication.

Social Skills

Social Skills Training - A variety of diverse training techniques that may assist persons with autism in learning to recognize social cues, communicate in social situations, or demonstrate the ability to walk. As with other treatments, this training will vary depending on the individual need.

Social Stories - a technique that presents appropriate social behaviors in the form of the story. The goal is to help persons by teaching them to take the perspective of other people in given situations.

Contact for Help and Information

Autism Society of America
ASA is dedicated to increasing public awareness about autism and the day-to-day issues faced by individuals with autism, their families and the professionals with whom they interact. The Society and its chapters share a common mission of providing information and education, and supporting research and advocating for programs and services for the autism community.

Asperger and Autism Information by OASIS @ MAAP Services, Inc.
A global information and support network for more advanced persons with autism and Asperger's syndrome.

Centers for Disease Control: Learn the signs. Act early.
Visit the "Learn the Signs. Act Early." website for information about childhood developmental milestones and delays. You'll be able to track the developmental milestones your child should be reaching, see how milestones change as your child grows, and download fact sheets on developmental milestones for children from 3 months to 5 years, along with information on developmental screening and developmental disabilities.

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