Autism 101: What is Autism? {Part 1}

April is Autism Awareness Month, so this month, we're going to learn about autism! Today's post is devoted to spreading awareness on what autism actually is...

Come back throughout the month where we will focus on supports, employment, and independence living skills with autism.

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurobiological disorder that affects brain development and lasts throughout one's lifetime. You may see the term autism spectrum disorder or ASD used to refer to the disorder. ASD according to the DSM-5, consists of persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.

Autism is called a "spectrum disorder" because it affects different people in a wide range of ways. The effects can range from mild to severe. Some people may also have an intellectual disability, while others have an average or high-range of intellect. There are some common characteristics many people with ASD share (which we will get into below) such as challenges with social interactions and repetitive behaviors, but not everyone with an ASD diagnosis share these struggles. You will see many differences in the onset and severity of the symptoms of ASD and how it affects everyone differently.

Impact and Prevalence

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD is currently one of the fastest growing developmental disability diagnoses, reporting a 29% increase in ASD diagnoses since 2008. This report, issued in 2015, also shows that 1 in every 68 children has been identified as having ASD. Additionally, it's been reported by the CDC that the rate of autism is 1 in 42 males as opposed to 1 in 189 females.

Some groups are at a higher risk for an autism diagnosis, such as the above rate of males over females, and the recurrence of ASD in siblings.

Due to this rise in autism over the past decade, an increase in the amount of research being conducted to identify causes and evaluate evidence-based treatments and supports, is underway.

Characteristics and Identification

ASD falls under the category of developmental disabilities. ASD represents a group of conditions that can result in significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.

It's important to note that each person is unique and should be treated as such. That being said, there are some patterns of characteristics in people who are diagnosed with ASD. Below are some common characteristics identified in the DSM-5 as well as by self-advocates for autism.

Challenges with Social Skills
  • People with ASD often have difficulty with social interactions, such as...
    • initiating social interactions with others
    • making eye contact
    • reading and understanding social cues
    • appearing to have little interest in making friends
  • People with ASD may struggle with social communication, ranging from...
    • severe delays in vocal communication
    • challenges in understanding language in everyday contexts
    • reading and understand social pragmatics
    • difficulty understanding and verbalizing emotions and abstract ideas
Challenges with Restricted Interests
  • People with ASD may have interests that others consider narrow and limited.  For example, they may become interested in a single topic, or a few topics from which they struggle to transition to other conversational topics or activities.
Challenges with Repetitive Behaviors
  • People with ASD may be interested in the movement of a body part or objects, such as spinning a top or flickering their fingers repeatedly for example.

Different Sensory Experiences
  • People with ASD may have different sensory needs, such as...
    • Sensitivity to light and/or sounds
    • Difficulty interpreting internal physical states
    • Olfactory sensitivity (sense of smell)
    • Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to touch and movement
Challenges with Rigidity and Order
  • People with ASD may struggle to remain "flexible" around changes, or prefer routine, consistency and order to a higher degree than those without ASD.

When diagnosing individuals with autism, doctors take into account many things, such as the manifestation of the characteristics above, severity to which the above characteristics affect the individual, and the age of onset, among other things. In order to gain a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, a doctor or other developmental diagnostician will need to complete an evaluation.  

Autism affects people differently, and it's important to note each individuals' strengths and challenges when we begin working with and supporting them. Check back next Monday for Part 2 of the series on different ways to support individuals with autism.

ABA at Play: scientific research, autism symptoms, automatically maintained behaviors, verbal behavior, evidence-based practices


  1. Time to light everything up blue and educate people on autism. Good post for doing this.

  2. I appreciate this post so much. I've actually forwarded it to several family members who wonder what it is I do as a special education teacher. Thank you for informing and educating people who would otherwise not know!

    1. I'm so happy to hear that! Stay tuned each Monday for the month of April for more info on autism. Keep up the great work, fellow educator :)

  3. I am so glad to hear that the amount of research concerning autism is increasing! While I was teacher, I met some amazing, inspiring children with autism!

    1. It's remarkable! I'm so glad there continues to be a drive from researchers and advocates to gain more information and raise awareness on autism. Thanks for stopping by :)

  4. I am an inclusion teacher, but only a small number of my students over the years have been diagnosed with autism. I have really loved those kids! I learn so much from them :)

    1. Working with children of all abilities is very inspiring. Thanks for sharing :)

  5. My oldest son (now 25 is on the spectrum) and I so wish we had all of this great info when he was first diagnosed. Keep shining this light! :)

    1. Imagine what we might know about ASD in the NEXT 25 years?!

  6. Love that you are sharing this information with people! I work with students with autism, and they are such bright, shining lights to the people who take the time to understand them.

    1. Yes! "People who take the time to understand them" is a powerful, yet true statement. If we want to know about the life of those with ASD, we should be talking to those with ASD. Thanks for stopping by :)

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Thanks for the comments! I look forward to reading them :)

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