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)


About Depression

It's normal for kids to feel sad, down, or irritated, or to be in bad moods from time to time. But when negative feelings and thoughts linger for a long time and limit a child's ability to function normally, it might be depression.

Depression is a type of mood disorder. The main sign is when kids are sad, discouraged, or irritable for weeks, months, or even longer. Another sign a kid might have depression is negative thinking. This includes focusing on problems and faults, being mostly critical and self-critical, and complaining a lot.

Depression can interfere with energy, concentration, sleep, and appetite. Kids with depression may lose interest in activities and schoolwork, seem tired, give up easily, or withdraw from friends or family.Top 3 things to know about depression: It lasts longer than regular sadness and affects more than mood. Parents don't always realize when a child is depressed. Depression can get better with the right care.

When kids have depression, it's hard for them to make an effort, even when doing things they used to enjoy. Depression can make kids feel worthless, rejected, or unlovable. It can make everyday problems seem more difficult than they actually are. When depression is severe, it can lead kids to think about self-harm or suicide

Recognizing Depression

It can be hard for parents and other adults to know when a child is depressed. An irritable or angry mood might seem like a bad attitude or disrespect. Low energy and lack of interest might look like not trying. Parents (and kids and teens themselves) may not realize that these can be signs of depression.

Because depression can show up in different ways and might be hard to see, it helps to let a doctor know if feelings of sadness or bad moods seem to go on for a few weeks. 

Diagnosing Depression and Other Mood Disorders

When diagnosing depression and similar mood disorders, doctors and mental health professionals use different categories. They all have depressed mood as a main symptom, but they develop in different ways. For example:

  • Major depression is an intense episode of depression that has developed recently and has lasted for at least 2 weeks.
  • Chronic depression (also called dysthymia) is a milder depression that has developed more gradually, and has lasted for 2 years or longer.
  • Adjustment disorder with depressed mood is depression that has developed after an upsetting event — anything from a natural disaster to a death in the family.
  • Seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression that is related to light exposure. It develops when hours of daylight are shorter; for example, during winter months.
  • Bipolar disorder (also called manic depression or bipolar depression) is a condition that includes episodes of major depression and, at other times, episodes of mania (emotional highs).
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder is a pattern of intense, frequent temper tantrums; outbursts of aggression and anger; and a usual mood of irritability that has lasted for at least a year in a child older than 6.

Getting Help

Depression and other mood disorders can get better with the right attention and care. But problems also can continue or get worse if they're not treated.

If you think your child might be depressed or has a problem with moods:

Talk with your child about depression and moods. Kids might ignore, hide, or deny how they feel. Or they might not realize that they're depressed. Older kids and teens might act like they don't want help, but talk with them anyway. Listen, offer your support, and show love. 

Schedule a visit to your child's pediatrician. The doctor will probably do a complete physical exam. A full exam lets the doctor check your child for other health conditions that could cause depression-like symptoms. If the doctor thinks your child has depression, or a similar mood disorder, he or she may refer you to a specialist for evaluation and treatment.

Contact a mental health specialist. Depression can get better. But without help, it can last or get worse. A child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist can evaluate your child and recommend treatment.

Therapists treat depression and other mood disorders with talk therapy, sometimes medicine, or both. Parent counseling is often part of the treatment, too. It focuses on ways parents can best support and respond to a kid or teen going through depression.

More Ways to Help

Treatment with a therapist is important. But you play an important role, too. At home, these simple but powerful things can help your child deal with depression.

Be sure your child eats nutritious foods, gets enough sleep, and gets daily physical activity. These have positive effects on mood.

Enjoy time together. Spend time with your child doing things you both can enjoy. Go for a walk, play a game, cook, make a craft, watch a funny movie. Gently encouraging positive emotions and moods (such as enjoyment, relaxation, amusement, and pleasure) can slowly help to overcome the depressed moods that are part of depression.

Be patient and kind. When depression causes kids and teens to act grumpy and irritable, it's easy for parents to become frustrated or angry. Remind yourself that these moods are part of depression, not intentional disrespect. Avoid arguing back or using harsh words. Try to stay patient and understanding. A positive relationship with a parent helps strengthen a child's resilience against depression.  

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016