What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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  • Written By: Barbara Bean-Mellinger
  • Edited By: Kathryn Hulick
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2018
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Autism spectrum disorder is the name often given to various types and degrees of autism, a disorder that may affect a person’s thinking, behavior, motor skills, and ability to communicate. Autism is not totally understood, nor do specialists agree on its diagnosis or treatment. But it is known that autism varies in severity, so experts view it as being on a spectrum, from mild symptoms to the most intense.

On the milder end of the spectrum is the autism spectrum disorder called Asperger Syndrome (AS), named after the Austrian pediatrician who first identified the condition in several of his patients in 1944. It is sometimes interchangeably called High Functioning Autism (HFA). People with AS or HFA are usually able to function on their own, but exhibit odd behavior in the way they communicate. They may speak too loudly or in a monotone, talk obsessively about one subject, or speak in an unusually formal manner.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the most severe form of autism. People with this level of autism may have extreme difficulty communicating with others, have little empathy, or fail to understand or exhibit normal emotions. They may not respond when their name is called nor answer when asked a question. Their motor skills are often poorly developed as well, which may be noticeable in an unusual way of walking and gesturing, or the absence of gestures.


Many other degrees of autism spectrum disorder exist between these two extremes. It is partly this variety that contributes to the difficulty in understanding, diagnosing and treating autism. Some similarities can be clues to the onset of autism spectrum disorder cases, however.

A child’s developmental differences that may point to an autism spectrum disorder tend to appear between the ages of three months to three years, but usually appear by the age of two. Children often regress and stop speaking words they have learned. They may stop developing emotionally, stop making eye contact, and refuse physical expressions such as hugs or kisses. Some experts even say they can detect the presence of autism in the way a baby babbles.

It is still not known what causes autism spectrum disorder. It seems to be more common in males, and to run in families, although the gene or genes responsible have not been pinpointed. Many parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder believe the symptoms first appeared shortly after the child’s vaccination. However, numerous studies have failed to show a connection between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder.



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