What Is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that involves significant challenges in communication, behaviors, and social interactions. Although it is commonly referred to as Autism, its formal diagnostic name is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The word “spectrum” in ASD implies that the disorder has a wide range of symptoms with varying degrees of severity. In other words, the effects and gravity of the symptoms varies for each individual. For example, a moderate form of Autism could present as mild repetitive gestures or learning disorder, while a more serious form can cause severely limited communication and social skills, and sometimes self-harming behaviors. Individuals with Autism are sometimes gifted with one or two traits, usually in the areas of visual/performing arts and science/mathematics that make them excel in comparison to their peers. Autism is normally diagnosed in childhood with many of the most visible symptoms showing between 2-3 years old. Some children may grow normally and may only get diagnosed later when their development appears to slow down significantly and they begin to lose previously gained skills.

Autism is lifelong condition. However, many children diagnosed with Autism grow to become independent, have families and careers, and live fulfilling lives. Understanding more about Autism will help you better appreciate and understand individuals who are living with the condition.

What are the Symptoms of Autism?

Autism symptoms typically fall under three broad groups: communication challenges, social interaction problems, and unusual repetitive behaviors and interests. The symptoms normally become evident during early childhood (between 12 and 36 months of age), although in some children symptoms may appear earlier or later.

Communication challenges
  • Delayed speech and language skills. Starts speaking later than expected or not at all (nonverbal)
  • Repeats words back to you or repeats the same words over and over (echolalia)
  • Finds it difficult to make eye contact or does not make contact at all
  • Does not point to things or does not respond to pointing
  • Has difficulty showing gestures such as for example, waving goodbye or nodding
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions
  • Interchanges pronouns (e.g., says “you” instead of “I”)
  • Speech is robotic and could be flat or high pitched
  • Does not engage in imaginative play (e.g., does not pretend to “drive” a toy car)
Social Interaction problems
  • Does not initiate play with peers and prefers to play alone
  • Does not respond to name by 12 months of age
  • Does not copy words and actions of peers
  • Does not show interest in interactive group games like “hide and seek” or “peekaboo”
  • Has difficulty expressing appropriate facial expressions such as for example, smiling back to you when you smile.
  • Does not understand personal space boundaries
  • Avoids or resists physical contact
  • Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about own feelings
Unusual Interests and Behaviors
  • Likes to flap hands or walk on toes
  • Lines up toys or other objects
  • Plays with toys inappropriately and in the same way every time
  • Has obsessive interests in a particular subject or thing. For example, likes to play with only Legos or likes listening to a particular song or watching the same movie over and over again.
  • Has to follow rigid routines and gets upset by minor changes
  • Looks intensely at hands, rocks body, or spins self in circles
  • Preference for predictable, structured play over spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Lack of fear and no perception of danger
  • Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel.
Other Symptoms

Some people with Autism may have other symptoms. These might include:

  • Hyperactivity (unusually active for long periods)
  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
  • Short attention span
  • Temper tantrums and extreme aggression that can result in injury of self and others
  • Lack of appetite and unusual sleeping habits
  • Unusual mood swings or emotional reactions

What are the type of Autism

Until 2013, Autism was categorized into 5 different types: Autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett Syndrome.

Autistic disorder

Autistic Disorder is normally diagnosed when an individual has all of the following:

  • Impaired in social interaction, impaired verbal or nonverbal communication, unusually intense interests and repetitive behaviors.
Pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

PDD-NOS is normally diagnosed when an individual has one of the following:

  • Impaired in social interaction, impaired verbal or nonverbal communication, unusually intense interests and repetitive behaviors.
Asperger Syndrome

Aspergers is normally diagnosed when an individual has normal communication skills but is impaired in social interaction and had unusually intense interests and repetitive behaviors.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD)

Childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD), also known as Heller’s syndrome, is rare form of PDD-NOS which involves regression of developmental ability in language, social function and motor skills.

Rett Syndrome

Rett syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that causes a loss of spoken language and motor skills, as well as behavioral and neurological problems. Children with Rett syndrome may also have a variety of other medical problems, including intestinal, breathing, orthopedic, and heart complications.

In 2013, the five categories of Autism were phased out and brought under one broad “umbrella” of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Currently, when a child is diagnosed with ASD, doctors will normally assign a “functional level” — 1, 2 or 3 — that reflects a particular group of symptoms and their corresponding support needed.

Level 1: Requires minimal support
  • People in this category are on the “milder” side of the spectrum.
  • They normally need assistance in social communication, as they might have challenges initiating and responding to social interactions.
  • They usually show little interest in social interaction, very rigid in their routines and have difficulty in adapting to new norms.
Level 2: Requires substantial support
  • People in this category are on the “moderate” side of the spectrum.
  • They usually have very limited verbal and nonverbal social communication even with some support.
  • Their ability to initiate social interactions is minimal and they have reduced or abnormal responses to social cues from others. They might also have difficulty in focusing and adapting to new norms.
Level 3: Requires very substantial support
  • People in this category are on the “severe” side of the spectrum.
  • People who are diagnosed as level 3 have intense challenges in both verbal and nonverbal social communication skills.
  • Individuals who fall under this category are normally nonverbal and have very limited social interactions skills. They may have minimal to zero response to pain and fear. Furthermore, they exhibit unusual social behaviors that are sometimes harmful to themselves and others.
  • Individuals at this level also may also show intense/obsession towards a particular thing or activity, have great difficulty changing focus or action and show repetitive behavior.

What parents and families should know About Autism

  • While there has been extensive and widespread research on Autism, there is still no consensus among Researchers and Doctors regarding the causes and “cures” for the disorder.
  • While doctors will generally now diagnose someone with Autism and rank them on a level, doctors may sometimes refer back to old categories of Aspergers, PDD-NOC, Autism Disorder etc. Doctors sometimes do this to help parents and families better understand the conditions specific to their children.
  • Rather than focus on “labels, challenges and disabilities,” which limits expectations, parents should rather place emphasis on “strengths, interests, and talents” which enables individuals living with the condition to live flourishing, productive and fulfilling lives.
  • Even for parents with children that are not on the spectrum, there is no such thing as achieving perfection when it comes to developmental milestones and corresponding future potential. Every child is different and will develop in their own way and at their own pace.
  • Just like everyone else, there is unlimited potential within every individual on the autism spectrum. It takes, patience, hard work and unconditional love to unravel this potential.

Resources for Parents

  1. For families in the US, please apply for SSI benefits by clicking the link below:
    Note that your child has to qualify in order to receive this resource/benefits, based on the Social Security Administration qualification criteria
  2. Children with autism diagnoses are typically referred by their professional providers for ABA/IBI therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, feeding therapy, etc. Please speak to your child’s provider for additional information and necessary referrals.
  3. Joining a support group can be very helpful in dealing with the grief and stressors associated with being an autism parent/caregiver. Please look for online and in-person support groups that best suits your needs. Call Autism Wonders Family Support Group at 6783343479 (USA) and 4166051118 (Canada)