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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects many individuals today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 36 children today is diagnosed with autism. This article covers topics such as the causes and symptoms of autism and the treatments available today. We aim to spread awareness and understanding regarding autism in order to foster a more inclusive society.


  1. What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

  2. Types of Autism

  3. How is Autism Spectrum Disorder Defined Today?

  4. Autism Symptoms

  5. Signs of Autism in Different Age Groups

  6. Signs of Autism in Different Genders

  7. Cause of Autism

  8. Autism Treatment Options

  9. Choosing Between Autism Therapy Services

  10. Autism Awareness: Life on the Spectrum

  11. Free Autism Resources: Exceptional Needs Today

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?


Autism spectrum disorder is a Neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how the brain processes different situations. ASD affects how a person communicates and socializes. ASD also includes repetitive and limiting behaviors.


Types of Autism


Autism cannot be simply defined into exact "types" per se because it is a spectrum disorder. As autistic professor of special education and advocate Stephen Shore once said, "When you meet one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." However, before autism was redefined as an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of disorders, experts used to believe that there are five different types of autism:


Asperger's Syndrome


Asperger's is a condition that was formally listed under the autism spectrum. However, it is now referred to as Level 1 Autism - a term used to describe someone on the autism spectrum who requires the least amount of support to lead a fulfilling life. 

Rett Syndrome


Rett syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by an early onset of development followed by a slowing down of development.

Childhood Disintegrative Disorder


Often referred to as "Heller's Syndrome," this disorder is categorized as being a part of the Autism Spectrum. A Child with Childhood Disintegrative Disorder will develop normally and then begin to regress. A key indication is a loss of skills. 

Kanner's Syndrome


Kanner's syndrome is often referred to as "Classic Autism." It was a term once used to describe a group of people on the spectrum who had been more severely affected by symptoms of autism.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified


Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified was a term once given to someone who did not fit into the category of Asperger's or "Classic Autism" but still met the criteria to be diagnosed today with autism.

How is Autism Spectrum Disorder Defined Today?


The Current DSM-5 Diagnostic criteria for ASD states that to be considered a part of the autism spectrum disorder, a "child must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction, plus at least two of four types of restricted repetitive behaviors."

Having said that, it’s important to remember the wise words of autistic professor of special education and advocate Dr. Stephen Shore, “If you’ve met a person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Labeling, for any of us, may make us feel boxed in. We can sometimes feel as though this label restricts us from what we are capable of by taking all other options off the table. However, when used to serve an individual's needs adequately, a label may become a purposeful definition that can help us navigate a supportive path. Labels have been both helpful and hurtful in the Autism Community.

In broader categories, autism can also be defined according to how severely it affects the individual.

High Functioning Autism (Mild Autism)


What is "High Functioning Autism?" These terms once referred to as "high" or "low" functioning, are now referred to as Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 and denote the amount of support necessary to move through these challenges that crop up in the individual's life. Someone with a Level 1 diagnosis may need minimal support to be independent. In contrast, someone who is experiencing autism at a Level 3 Diagnosis might require more support to live a fulfilling life.

Low Functioning Autism (Severe Autism)


What is "Low Functioning Autism"?

"Low Functioning" is now referred to as Level 3 Autism. This term is used to signify the number of challenges someone on the spectrum may face. It is as if describing the height of a stool someone might need to see over a fence. Do you need one step, two steps, or three to be able to see what everyone else can see? 

Autism Symptoms


Autism symptoms will be different for each individual. However, they will have to do with the consequences of the deficits mentioned in the DSM5 definition. For instance, there will be deficits in communication and interpersonal skills.

When categorizing restrictive and repetitive behaviors, there is a spectrum. One person may find it very difficult when their breakfast has been changed to a different time, while another might be more capable of accepting another option. Below, we’ve listed some more common autism symptoms, although they shouldn’t be considered the end-all and be-all.



A common manifestation or symptom of autism spectrum disorder is stimming. A person with autism employs stimming to help their brain deal with a lot of sensory input or a lack of sensory input. People with autism may use repetitive motions; sometimes, they may flap their hands or rock back and forth. These behaviors are called "stimming," and it's a very effective method of self-regulating. It's as natural as tapping your fingers or chewing your pencil while you try to focus on something important. 



One of the symptoms of a communication deficit experienced by someone with autism spectrum disorder is apraxia. Apraxia is a processing issue that interferes with someone being able to say what they want to say, not because they physically can't speak but because planning out the expression of their words and phrasing is a challenge to how their brain works.



Echolalia is sometimes the bridge that a person with ASD might use to communicate their needs. Echolalia is the precise repetition or "echoing" of words, sounds, or sentences. Children with ASD often use echolalia as a form of communication because they learn language in a different way than other children might. Some children may also use specific, repeated phrases as a soothing stimulus for themselves. A good way to put this into perspective might be when we need to assure ourselves of something and will use very specific phrases to feel more confident or calm ourselves down, such as "You've got this!" "Everything will be okay." 



"Nonverbal" or "nonspeaker" are terms given to people on the spectrum who cannot functionally communicate for themselves. It does not mean they are not communicating or that they are not listening. It simply means there is a processing delay in the brain either with how this language is received and processed or how it is processed and sent out. A person with an autism spectrum disorder might have an easier time with one or the other or may have a consistent struggle with both. A study put out in 2019 suggests that a delay in auditory processing may contribute to a nonverbal diagnosis.

There are a number of tools currently in the autism community that are used to help nonverbal people communicate more effectively. Touchchat, Proloquo, and Lampsforlife are all apps designed around PECS, a visual language tool used to help people with autism communicate better for themselves. 

Signs of Autism in Different Age Groups


Autism in every age will present differently, just as it would in different people. However, there will need to be deficits in social interactions and communication as well as instances of repetition and rigidity.

Signs of Autism During Pregnancy


Currently, there is no definitive prenatal blood test that someone can take to determine if there is the existence of autism spectrum disorder in utero. The clearest diagnosis can be found by observing a child and how they interact with their environment as they move through different developmental milestones.

Signs of Autism in Infants


It is important to note that all infants develop at different rates, and milestones might be reached at different ages for different children. Also, many children with autism may not show signs this young, and struggles may appear in someone through various symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns that your child is not responding to sounds, is not smiling, is following objects with their eyes, or has been consistently missing developmental milestones. Early intervention can be started without any formal diagnosis and has been shown to be very successful for children diagnosed with autism, and introducing helpful tools and supports for development can only help.


Signs of Autism in Toddlers


Signs of autism in toddlers will vary. Each child is different. Some signs that you may wish to bring up to your pediatrician would be a child not responding to their name, not pointing to objects, an inability to learn new words, and a lack of interest in playing with or sharing interests with other children.

Signs of Autism in Teens


Signs of autism in teenagers can show as an inability to form friendships, a struggle to make eye contact, and difficulty interpreting body language or social cues. However, it is vital to remember that autism will look different to each person and can look very different in teen girls versus teen boys, so listening to your teen when they say they don't feel like they fit in may help in getting them the needed support.

Signs of Autism in Adults


Adults diagnosed later in life may have found it difficult to remain employed, struggle to live independently, and often still live with family. Undiagnosed autism can affect employment and opportunities to create friendships. An official diagnosis can be beneficial as it can allow you to understand various behaviors, access services, and obtain much-needed support.

Signs of Autism in Different Genders


Women and men both struggle with symptoms of autism. However, how they respond to these stressors may appear different. There has been much focus on finding autism in boys for many years. However, researchers are now seeing that girls struggle with symptoms of autism spectrum disorder very differently than most boys and will often be masters at "masking." This is a term used when describing someone who hides their struggle from those around them so that they can fit in. 

Signs of Autism in Women


Signs of autism in women may not show immediately because research shows women learn to disguise traits of autism that may not fit in with those around them. They also often have found that young girls have interests similar to their peers, whereas boys commonly have interests in objects or categorizing things. Girls may have interests in celebrities or dolls, but the difference is that their interest becomes an obsession. Girls on the spectrum will also struggle to belong in their peer group. Although girls can "camouflage" or "mask" their symptoms, it is essential to help address them. "Masking" and feeling like you do not belong has been shown to lead to mental health struggles in girls and women on the spectrum.

Signs of Autism in Men


Signs and symptoms of autism in adult men can be very similar to teen boys. Many men may have a hard time forming or keeping relationships. Men may become upset if their plans are altered. They are often easily affected by noises around them. You may hear them repeating phrases from television or movies that they enjoy. They will also have difficulty with social situations and may say inappropriate things or feel awkward when interacting with others.

Cause of Autism


There is, at this time, no one thing that is believed to cause autism. The CDC has found that autism spectrum disorder does have a genetic connection and is more likely to appear in families where autism is already present. Risk factors such as parents' age, environmental risks, and biology are also possible contributors to risk.

Is the Cause of Autism Genetic?


There is no one cause of autism; however, genetics do play a role. Having a family member with autism does increase the risk of having a child with autism spectrum disorder.

Autism Treatment Options


Some treatment options for autism spectrum disorder aim to assist in the management of symptoms through behavioral interventions such as applied behavior analysis and developmental therapies such as speech, occupational, and physical therapies. Other approaches, such as social skill groups, psychology, or medication to help manage symptoms, are also used. Many families also succeed in using alternative therapies such as equine therapy or music therapy. 

The most effective approach to address symptoms is often through multiple methods. Every person is different, and finding the right approach for you or someone you love may require more than therapy. Below, we’ve listed some of the more commonly used treatments for autism.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a personalized approach where therapists attempt to enhance social competencies. ABA focuses on cultivating behaviors necessary for self-management and regulation.

For more information about ABA, visit our guide to ABA therapy.

Occupational Therapy


Occupational therapy is used to help a person on the spectrum to manage how their brain processes sensory information. A person dealing with sensory symptoms of the autism spectrum commonly finds this therapy helpful.

For more information about this treatment, visit our guide to Occupational Therapy.

Pivotal Response Treatment


Pivotal Response Training or treatment is a specific approach used in ABA where someone is directed to improve pivotal skills like initiating conversations in a natural setting, such as home or school.

Choosing Between Autism Therapy Services


Every person managing autism spectrum disorder is dealing with different manifestations of the disorder, and what might work for one person may create more issues for another. Many people also find that many therapies are necessary to address different issues. Deciding on a therapeutic approach takes research and follow-through.

The Best Treatment for Autism in the World


No one treatment is best for everyone. However, Applied Behavior Analysis is the most widely researched and commonly used therapy in the autism community to assist in redirecting challenging behaviors. Evidenced-based therapies such as art or music therapy, as well as equine therapy, have been proven to aid in managing anxiety, and speech, occupational, and physical therapies address sensory and motor skill deficits. Therapy is a personal experience, and each modality is meant to address different deficits. It’s essential to find what works for you or your loved ones, and it may mean using many therapies and finding the right therapists that work best with you and your family.

Autism Awareness: Life on the Spectrum


Life on the spectrum can never be fully understood by someone not on the spectrum. However, knowing how we perceive something and understanding to what extent that experience differs for someone on the spectrum can allow more opportunities to listen and understand. 

Life on the Spectrum for an Autistic Child


Children on the spectrum cannot always advocate for themselves and require the support of a parent willing to educate themselves and advocate for their child so that their child may one day successfully advocate for themselves. Two excellent resources for parents raising a child of different abilities and navigating the school system are and Both offer a number of free resources.

Life on the Spectrum for an Autistic Adult


Life on the spectrum for an adult with autism spectrum disorder will be different for every person. However, with the proper support in place, many adults on the spectrum can live fulfilling lives that allow them to advocate for themselves and others. Adults with autism should be given the help they need to foster independence. 

Autism Awareness Day


April 2nd is widely known as Autism Awareness Day. It’s a day where different autism groups, families, and support services use their voices to bring awareness to their communities.

Autism Awareness Month


April is considered to be Autism Awareness Month. Many people turn out for autism awareness activities, walks, and programs with the hope of bringing more awareness and support by participating in inclusive activities throughout the month. Many people will also wear blue to show their support for those they care for affected by symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Free Autism Resources: Exceptional Needs Today


For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Exceptional Needs Today magazine is an award-winning different abilities publication that supports working together to promote awareness, acceptance, and inclusiveness for ALL. Visit our other articles for useful information about

  1. Down Syndrome

  2. Dyslexia

  3. Intellectual Disability

  4. Speech Delay

  5. Developmental Delay

  6. Early Intervention

  7. Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Katie Foley is an advocate for The Arc of Northeastern Pennsylvania (, where she runs Sibshop, creates and presents content and trainings focused on assisting others in advocating for themselves or their loved ones and assists in individual advocacy in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Her education is in communications with a focus on theater, and she has a secondary degree in elementary education.

She also enjoys teaching an Acting class for Adults of all abilities that focus on socialization and emotional understanding through Acting techniques. She has written You May Never Be French, a children's book that looks at autism through a cultural lens.

Katie has also written and contributed to other children's books and has been a contributing author for Autism Parenting Magazine and a guest blogger for other nonprofits. She is on the Family Advisory Board for Community Cares Behavioral Health in Pennsylvania and a founding board member of The Art's Alliance in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Katie also enjoys volunteering for Equestrian Special Olympics; however, she is most grateful for her role as a parent of exceptional children who teach her new things about herself and life daily.

Type of Autism
How is Autism Spectrum Disorder Defined Today?
Autism Symptoms
Signs of Autism in Different Age Groups
Signs of Autism in Different Genders
Cause of Autism
Autism Treatment Options
Choosing Between Autism Therapy Services
Autism Awareness: Life on the Spectrum
Free Autism Resources: Exceptional Needs Today
Asperger's Syndrome
Rett Syndrome
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder
Kanner's Syndrome
Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified
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