Patient and family education is important to us. Here you can learn more about autism spectrum disorders in children, and view trusted insights from KidsHealth.org, 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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)
- 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)
From Nemours' KidsHealth
- Giving Teens a Voice in Health Care Decisions
- Raising a Child With Autism: Paige and Iain's Story
- Is There a Connection Between Vaccines and Autism?
- Disciplining Your Child With Special Needs
- Occupational Therapy
- Does My Toddler Have a Language Delay?
- Camps for Kids With Special Needs
- Relaxation Techniques for Children With Serious Illness
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
- Sending Your Child With Special Needs to Camp
- Asperger Syndrome
- Autism Special Needs Factsheet
- Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias
- What Is ADHD?
- Brain and Nervous System
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Delayed Speech or Language Development
- Sleep Problems in Teens
- Speech-Language Therapy
- A to Z: Autism
Trusted External Resources
- The Power of Positive Parenting: A Wonderful Way to Raise Children, by Dr. Glenn I. Latham
- Educate Toward Recovery: Turning the Tables on Autism, by MA BCBA Robert Schramm
- Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search For A Cure, by Paul A. Offit, MD
Does My Toddler Have a Language Delay?
My 2½-year-old daughter seems to talk less than her sister did at this age. I know that kids develop language skills at different times, but I'm still concerned. What's "normal" for her age?
As you mention, all children (yes, even siblings!) develop and refine their language skills at different times throughout their development, so the range of what's "normal" is broad. However, some guidelines can help parents decide if their child might be at the latter end of the spectrum.
A typical 2-year-old should:
- speak in two-word phrases, like "more juice" and "go bye-bye"
- follow two-step commands
- name simple objects
- have a vocabulary of 50 or more words
- be understood at least 50% of the time by a parent
Between 2 and 3 years, vocabulary continues to build and comprehension also increases. By 3 years of age, a child should:
- speak in three-word sentences
- have a vocabulary of 200 words or more (basically, more than you can count)
- be understood 75% of the time
- understand prepositions (such as, "put it on the table" or "put it under the bed")
- use pronouns ("me," "you," "it")
If you feel that your child is not on track, talk to your doctor about your concerns.
Reviewed by: Amy Nelson, MA, CCC-SLP
Date reviewed: August 11, 2016