What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by challenges in two primary areas:

  1. The first area involves ongoing social communication and social interaction issues. When individuals with autism show these characteristics they may have challenges with the back-and-forth nature of a conversation, they may have a difficult time sharing emotional experiences with another person, and/or they may not start conversations/interactions with others. Challenges in this area may also include difficulties with nonverbal communication behaviors such as eye contact and body language as well as confusion with the use of gestures to communicate. Lastly, this area also includes challenges with developing and sustaining social relationships (such as friendships) with others.
  2. The second area includes challenges with repetitious or limited behavior. These challenges can look like behavior that repeats over and over (e.g., rocking or spinning), an abnormal use of objects (such as lining them up, spinning them, etc), a strong insistence on keeping things the same (e.g., an insistence on a fixed and constant schedule/routine or route to school), a resistance to any change in routine, an odd but intense interest in objects or topics (e.g., obsession with trains, components of a clothes washer, places on maps, talking about bugs, etc), and/or an intense need for to or aversion to specific sensory stimulation such as deep pressure, extremes in temperature, textures of various clothing materials, etc.

Sometimes individuals with a diagnosis of autism also have a diagnosis of intellectual disability as well as other secondary diagnoses (anxiety disorder, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc). However, on the other side of the spectrum, some individuals with autism can also have very advanced cognitive abilities (memory, attention/focus, etc). Individuals who are diagnosed by practitioners who are using the most recent (DSM-V or ICD-10) definition will also assign a severity (ranging from 1-3) to indicate the level of support that the individual needs to function on a day to day basis.

The challenge for those who are not familiar with autism is that an untrained individual cannot simply look at someone and see that he/she does or does not have autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means that the way the characteristics above are displayed can vary considerably from one individual with autism to the next. Additionally, it is possible to display some of the characteristics with autism but not enough to warrant a full diagnosis. This is one of the reasons that a similar disorder (Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder) was created in 2013, the last time the diagnostic criteria for autism were revised. This new disorder will help many who don’t qualify for a diagnosis of autism at least understand some of their behavioral challenges a bit more. The other challenge is that science has not yet managed to develop a biological or medical test to diagnose the disorder. At the current time autism is completely defined and diagnosed through observable behaviors. This may be one reason why therapy based on Applied Behavior Analysis is so effective with this disorder.