What Is Autism? - Spectrum, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Diane Davis
Studying Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can help you understand how this disorder can be manifested on a spectrum. Explore Autism Spectrum Disorders in this lesson and test your understanding with a quiz.


Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, as well as how a person makes sense of the world. It is caused by a neurological disorder.

Autism can manifest as impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual or severely limited activities and interest. These symptoms typically appear during the first three years of life. It is a spectrum condition, which means that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways.

The most severe cases are marked by extremely repetitive, unusual, self-injurious, and aggressive behavior. This behavior may persist over time and prove very difficult to change. The conditions on the spectrum are Asperger's syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Autistic Disorder, Rett Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD).

Children diagnosed with an ASD do not embrace the typical patterns of child development. Some hints of future problems may be apparent from birth, while in most cases, signs become evident when a child's communication and social skills lag further behind other children of the same age. Some parents report the change as being sudden, and that their children start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had previously acquired.

Spectrum Disorders

Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome is the mildest form of autism, and it is technically no longer an official diagnosis, as it is simply low on the autism spectrum. People at this end of the spectrum have difficulties in social communication, social interaction, and social imagination. They have a hard time understanding socially what is really going on around them. Their desire to interact is what sets them apart from those with traditional autism. They are not content to be alone all the time and they long to form friendships with others. Since they cannot read social or emotional cues well, they come off as insensitive, pushy, or strange, yet have very little insight into how they are perceived. They have very little idea on how to make a friendship work.

Language is acquired on time or even early. The trouble comes with reading non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expression. People living low on the spectrum tend to talk at people instead of with them, and will often talk about their favorite topics long after the other person has become tired of the subject. They will have suffered from no cognitive delays during their first three years of life. This means that they will have at least a 'normal' IQ. Those living with Asperger's are known for having one, or several, intensely focused interests. They can seem drawn or driven to their special interests, zoning out on them in the middle of school, spending hours on them during free time, and talking about them to anybody who will listen.

Coping with stress, confusion, and frustration is an enormous challenge for these individuals. They depend on predictability, and living in the day-to-day world can be taxing. Added stress can come from wanting to connect with others, but rarely succeeding, resulting in meltdowns. Individuals have been observed to exhibit poor motor skills and clumsiness. Like all autism, there is no specific treatment or 'cure'.

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