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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),1 autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a “developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.” Some people with ASD need a lot of help. Some people with ASD need just a little help.

Mother and son hang out together

What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Children with ASD look just like children who do have ASD. Children with ASD may:

  • Have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things
  • Have problems with communication, emotional, and social skills
  • Not want change in their daily activities
  • Repeat certain behaviors

How a child with ASD learns, solves problems, and thinks can range from gifted to severely challenged.

A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately:

  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Autistic disorder
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)

Signs and symptoms

Signs of ASD begin during early childhood, typically last throughout a person’s life, and can include:

  • Appearing to be unaware when people talk to them, but responding to other sounds
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Being very interested in people, but not knowing how to talk, play, or relate to them
  • Having trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • Having trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • Having trouble relating to others
  • Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Having unusual reactions to the way things feel, look, smell, sound, and/or taste
  • Losing skills they once had (e.g., no longer saying words they were using)
  • Not having an interest in other people
  • Not looking at objects when another person points at them
  • Not playing “pretend” games (for example, not pretending to “feed” a doll)
  • Not pointing at objects to show interest (for example, not pointing at an airplane flying over)
  • Preferring not to be held or cuddled, or cuddling only when they want to
  • Repeating actions over and over again
  • Repeating or echoing words or phrases said to them, or repeating words or phrases in place of normal language
  • Wanting to be alone


Diagnosing ASD can be difficult. A doctor looks at a child’s behavior and development. There is no medical test to diagnose ASD.

Children with ASD:

  • Can be diagnosed at 18 months or younger
  • Often do not get a final diagnosis until much older
  • May not get the help they need, if not diagnosed at a young age


ASD currently has no cure. Early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development, according to the CDC. Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years old (36 months) learn important skills, such as:

  • Interacting with others
  • Talking
  • Walking

Talk to your child’s doctor as soon as you think your child has ASD or other developmental problems.

Causes and risk factors

Scientists have identified many causes for ASD, including:

  • Biologic factors
  • Environmental factors
  • Genetic factors
  • How old a child’s parents are when the child is born
  • The prescription drugs valproic acid and thalidomide, if taken during pregnancy

Scientists do not know all causes of ASD. Scientists are certain that vaccines do not cause ASD.2

Teenagers and adults with ASD

According to the CDC, as children with ASD age, they have a higher risk of:3

  • Being unemployed or underemployed
  • Going to college
  • Moving away from their families or relatives
  • Spending little to no time with friends or participating in community or social activities—nearly 40% spend little or no time with friends

Individuals with ASD, during adolescence and young adulthood:

  • May experience changes in their ASD symptoms, behaviors, and co-occurring health conditions
  • May have trouble functioning and participating in the community

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior—or if you are concerned about your behavior—talk to your doctor.

  1. “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed April 4, 2023,, opens new window.
  2. “Autism and Vaccines,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed April 4, 2023,, opens new window.
  3. “Autism Spectrum Disorder in Teenagers and Adults,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed April 4, 2023,, opens new window.

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