Autism 101

What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis/intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report. The report concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 59 births in the United States – twice as great as the 2004 rate of 1 in 125 – and almost 1 in 54 boys. The spotlight shining on autism as a result has opened opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve families facing a lifetime of supports for the individual with autism. In June 2014, researchers estimated the lifetime cost of caring for an individual with autism is as great as $2.4 million. The Autism Society estimates that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism. (This figure includes research, insurance costs and non-covered expenses, Medicaid waivers for autism, educational spending, housing, transportation, employment, related therapeutic services and caregiver costs.)

Some Possible Signs of Autism: Early identification can change lives

Individuals with autism do not “outgrow” autism, but studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes including quality of life. For more information on developmental milestones, visit the CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early”site. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects
For more information from the Autism Society of America about individuals on the spectrum by age, select the link to the age category below.

Infants and Toddlers

School Age

Transition to Adulthood


More About Autism

The terms “Autistic” and “autism spectrum” often are used to refer inclusively to people who have an official diagnosis on the autism spectrum or who self-identify with the Autistic community. While all Autistics are as unique as any other human beings, they share some characteristics typical of autism in common.

  1. Different sensory experiences. For example, heightened sensitivity to light, difficulty interpreting internal physical sensations, hearing loud sounds as soft and soft sounds as loud, or synesthesia.
  2. Non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving. For example, learning “difficult” tasks (e.g. calculus) before “simple” tasks (e.g. addition), difficulty with “executive functions,” or being simultaneously gifted at tasks requiring fluid intelligence and intellectually disabled at tasks requiring verbal skills.
  3. Deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects. “Narrow but deep,” these “special interests” could be anything from mathematics to ballet, from doorknobs to physics, and from politics to bits of shiny paper.
  4. Atypical, sometimes repetitive, movement. This includes “stereotyped” and “self-stimulatory” behavior such as rocking or flapping, and also the difficulties with motor skills and motor planning associated with apraxia or dyspraxia.
  5. Need for consistency, routine, and order. For example, holidays may be experienced more with anxiety than pleasure, as they mean time off from school and the disruption of the usual order of things. People on the autistic spectrum may take great pleasure in organizing and arranging items.
  6. Difficulties in understanding and expressing language as used in typical communication, both verbal and non-verbal. This may manifest similarly to semantic-pragmatic language disorder. It’s often because a young child does not seem to be developing language that a parent first seeks to have a child evaluated. As adults, people with an autism spectrum diagnosis often continue to struggle to use language to explain their emotions and internal state, and to articulate concepts (which is not to say they do not experience and understand these).
  7. Difficulties in understanding and expressing typical social interaction. For example, preferring parallel interaction, having delayed responses to social stimulus, or behaving in an “inappropriate” manner to the norms of a given social context (for example, not saying “hi” immediately after another person says “hi”).

Autism is diagnosed based on observation by a diagnostician or team of diagnosticians (e.g. neuropsychologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, etc.).

This material was adapted with permission from the “What Is Autism?” page on the website

Myths About Autism

  1. Autism is contagious. Nope! You can’t catch autism. Autism is something some people are born with, like blue eyes or red hair or a brain that is very good at some things and has more trouble with others.
  2. Autism is caused by vaccines. Vaccines do not cause autism.
  3. Autism is a disease. Nope! Autism is a developmental disability some people are born with, like dyslexia or Down Syndrome. It is not a disease. It is a difference, and a disability.
  4. 4. Autism is a tragedy. Nope! With the right support, autistic people can go to school, communicate, work, live in the community, have friends, get married, start families, vote, pursue their interests, and anything else they might want to do.
  5. Autistic people are eternal children. Nope! Autistic people grow up. An autistic 20 year old is not a toddler in a 20 year old’s body–they are an autistic 20 year old.
  6. You can grow out of autism. Nope!Autism is a lifelong developmental disability. Autistic children grow up into autistic adults. The same percentage of adults and children are autistic.
  7. Autism means not being able to speak. Communication disability is a part of diagnostic criteria for autism, but most autistic people do develop the ability to talk. About 15-20% of autistic people do not develop oral speech. They can use Augmentative & Alternative Communication to speak for themselves.
  8. Autism means intellectual disability. About 15-25% of autistic people also have an intellectual disability. Most autistic people are not intellectually disabled. Intellectual disability is not a part of autism, but some people have both.
  9. Autistic people lack empathy. Nope! Autistic people feel empathy for other people. Autistic people are people, not robots.
  10. All autistic people are savants. About 10% of autistic people have savant skills like perfect pitch, photographic memory, or calendar calculation. Most autistic people are not savants.
  11. Autistic people suffer from autism. Autistic people suffer from prejudice and discrimination. Autistic people suffer when they do not get the support and accommodation they need, when they receive substandard or segregated education or living environments, when they are kept out of the community or kept unemployed, when their civil and human rights are violated, or when their access to communication and the right to make decisions about their lives, bodies, and futures are denied. Autistic people do not suffer from autism.
  12. Only boys are autistic. Not true.  Girls often present differently than boys. Girls need to be identified — and accepted. This will require more awareness and sensitivity on the part of parents, teachers and clinicians.

Adapted from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network Website

Autism Acceptance

What is autism acceptance? Autism acceptance means embracing and valuing autistic people as autistic people instead of being afraid of us, having low expectations, or trying to find a way to make us not autistic.

Why should I accept autistic people? The Americans With Disabilities Act says “disability is a natural part of the human experience.” Autism is a natural part of the human experience, and autistic people are members of our community, citizens, friends, family members, and fellow humans. Accepting autistic people is about honoring human diversity and making sure that everyone is included, valued, and contributing in our society.

Why should I care about autism acceptance? 1 in 88 people are autistic. You probably know an autistic person. Autism acceptance means you want us around.

What does acceptance look like? Autism acceptance looks different to different people in different contexts. At its heart, autism acceptance is about accepting autistic people, instead of being afraid of us, having low expectations, or trying to find a way to make us not autistic. Acceptance might look like: • inclusive education • helping your child or your friend learn to use their AAC device • fighting stigma and stereotypes about autism and autistic people • hiring an autistic person to work for you at the same wage as a comparable non-autistic person • snapping your fingers instead of clapping for applause so your autistic coworker isn’t hurt by the noise • or making sure autistic people are included and respected in your community and that your community is accessible to us. Acceptance is not passive tolerance. Acceptance is an action.

Doesn’t acceptance mean no therapies, no education, no intervention, just letting my kid stay where they are forever? Isn’t acceptance passive? No! Acceptance is not passive. Acceptance is an action. Acceptance means doing everything you can so that your autistic child will grow up into the best autistic adult they can be, supporting your autistic friends in a world that is not designed for us, and working to make our world a better, more inclusive, safer place for autistic people of all ages and abilities.

*Adapted from the ASAN website

Want More?

Sign up here for a free online, Autism 101 class, through the Autism Society of America.




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