KidsHealth from Nemours

Patient and family education is important to us. Here you can learn more about autism spectrum disorders in children, and view trusted insights from, the No. 1 most viewed health site for children, created by the experts at Nemours. We've also provided information from the most respected nonprofit organizations.

About Autism in Children

Autism — whether mild or severe — is a lifelong condition and your child may need medication, therapy or support throughout his or her life. Thankfully today, unlike only a few decades ago, autism specialists can offer many interventions and therapies that can remarkably increase your child’s skills and abilities. The next few decades (and even the next few years) show great promise of more to come.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means it’s a condition related to the improper development of the neurons in the brain.

Children with an autism spectrum disorder develop “unevenly” and have difficulties in communication and social interactions and exhibit repetitive or restrictive behaviors. Very often, these children have exceptional strengths in other areas, such as math, visual processing and musical and artistic abilities (to name a few). Autism spectrum disorder is an active area of research — every day we’re uncovering important information about the disorder.

Traditional Types of Autism

Autism has had many names, including:
  • autistic disorder (or autism) — refers to the more severe cases in which children have difficulty communicating and interacting with others (or they may be unable to communicate), and also exhibit unique repetitive/restrictive behaviors such as hand flapping, spinning or rocking.
  • Asperger syndrome (AS, also called Asperger’s) — a milder form of autism in which children have average or above-average intelligence, impaired language skills only in some areas (like language pragmatics, or understanding the meaning of words in certain situations), impaired social skills (problems with reciprocity, or the natural “give and take” that occurs in a conversation) and repetitive/restrictive behaviors, sometimes related to a special interest.
  • pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) — Because there are many variations within the autism spectrum — with no two children experiencing the same symptoms or patterns of behavior — today we refer to all types of autism as “autism spectrum disorder” regardless of how mild or severe symptoms may be.
Prevalence and Cause of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder. And while there are many theories about the causes of autism spectrum disorder in children, large research studies show vaccinations do not increase the risk for the disorder. Other studies show that genes may play a role, and possibly prenatal illness or infections, but it is not caused by anything a mother did, or did not do, during pregnancy. What’s more, autism is not a result of a child’s upbringing, amount of nurturing or environment at home. The cause of autism development disorder continues to be a very active area of study.

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children

Children with an autism spectrum disorder exhibit behavioral symptoms in specific areas, with different degrees of severity, and at different ages or life stages. Some symptoms include:

Communication Difficulties
  • delayed babbling or speaking
  • does not speak, or is “nonverbal” (but may be able to communicate using pictures or assistive technologies)
  • problems understanding the meaning of words
  • difficulty starting and sustaining (continuing) conversation
  • can only talk about a special interest (no “small talk”)
  • does not understand tone, body language or facial expressions
  • interprets words literally (may not understand statements like “it’s raining cats and dogs”)
  • may speak in a different tone (monotone or high-pitched)
Impaired Social Interaction
  • does not engage in interactions or imitation (smiling back or responding to name)
  • reduced interest in people
  • lack of eye contact
  • difficulty making and keeping friends
  • difficulty playing games or working in groups (has own rules or way of playing)
  • responds to things differently (laughs when it’s serious or cries when it’s not)
  • hard time understanding how people think or feel (difficulty with or lack of empathy)
  • difficulty seeing other people’s perspective
  • difficulty regulating emotions (tantrums when overloaded)
Repetitive/Restrictive Behaviors
  • repeats words over and over
  • upset when a routine is disrupted or changed
  • hand-flapping, rocking or spinning
  • uses toys differently (repeatedly lines items up, spins wheels on vehicles, opens and shuts/turns things on and off)
  • intense fixation with details, particularly related to a special interest
Sensory Processing Difficulties

Some children may be easily overloaded by too much — or too little — sensory input. For example, children with an autism spectrum disorder may:

  • react adversely to itchy clothing (tags or seams)
  • dislike loud noises (vacuum cleaner, school bell, etc.)
  • avoid bright lights (particularly flickering of fluorescent lighting)
  • avoid being touched or hugged (or conversely, need more touch)

Sending Your Child With Special Needs to Camp

You've decided to send your child with special needs to camp this summer. But that's just the first step — you can choose a camp designed just for kids with special needs or a mainstream camp where your child will be with kids without special needs. Once that's decided, what can you do to get ready?

Preparing Your Child — and Yourself

If you haven't visited the camp, get as much information about it as possible, including a description of the layout and a video, if the camp has one, and go over these with your child.

Tell your child that you'll be checking in regularly with the camp staff and stress that he or she can always let them know if his or her needs aren't being met. Offer reassurance that you and the camp staff will take every precaution to make sure that all kids stay safe.

Talk about the benefits of attending camp and what some of your child's goals might be, such as to try a new sport, make new friends, or just enjoy a break from doctors' appointments and therapy sessions.

When kids are intimidated by the thought of attending a residential camp or an inclusionary camp, parents might consider starting them in a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs. This can give them the skills and confidence they need to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp.

Start with regular sports activities and day camp. Then use a special-needs camp to get them used to being away before sending them to an inclusionary camp.

Another option to consider is sending a child to camp with a friend or a sibling. If kids attend an inclusionary or mainstream camp, the buddy doesn't have to have a special need. Going with a friend can reduce stress for both parents and kids, since kids with special needs and their camp buddies will be looking out for each other.

Sharing Information With Camp Staff

Some parents are reluctant to share too much information with camp staff for fear it will have negative repercussions for their child (for example, they may wonder if the camp will still take their child or if they're setting their child up for failure). But good camps will want and need to know as much as possible — the more information they have, the better.

Consult with your child's doctor and other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to make sure you give the camp director and staff all necessary information, and ask the camp staff if they have everything they need from you.

You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child. This can be critical. For example, if your child will be attending a mainstream camp, you'll want to make sure that everything is accessible for your child and that the staff understands your child's needs.

Many camps have paperwork you can fill out to share information about things like dietary and medical needs. And regardless of whether your child is going to a day or residential camp, you should give the staff a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child's camp stay.

If your child takes any medication, include the phone number of your doctor in case the prescription is lost and needs to be refilled by camp staff. Check whether the camp infirmary stocks your child's medication, too. If it doesn't, send extra medicine in case of an emergency.

What to Pack

Try to limit the special equipment your child brings, especially if it's expensive or breakable. Kids going to a mainstream camp are likely to want to be like all the other kids, so do what you can to accommodate that desire. And mark or label everything with your child's name to make it easier to keep track of belongings — that goes for everything from crutches to a retainer case.

If the camp hasn't sent you one, you should call ahead for a list of recommended items. Every camp has different requirements.

You also have the option to provide any support staff your child needs. If your child needs a therapist, you can have that person come in on a predetermined basis to provide care. Or maybe your child needs more intensive, round-the-clock care — ask the camp director what you can do to accommodate these special needs.

Remember, however, that you may want to let your child have a vacation from therapy or other treatments. Before you decide to postpone any treatments, though, consult with your doctor.

Dealing With Anxiety and Homesickness

Many camps don't allow direct contact between parent and child while the camp is in session — they do this to help the campers stay focused on their activities. This can be scary for parents of kids with special needs, which is why it's important that you figure out, ahead of time, how you'll get information about your child's status. Will the camp call you with updates or can you occasionally call or email the supervisor and camp staff?

Like any parent of a camper, though, parents of kids with special needs can write letters to remind their kids that they're loved and missed, and that they can't wait to hear all about their campers' many experiences.

And just like any other child, your kid probably won't want you to cramp his or her style while away at camp. The best thing you can do is respect your camper's need for freedom and independence while enjoying a safe camp environment.

Reviewed by: Steven J. Bachrach, MD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016