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Autism Spectrum Disorder

​Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects a child's social skills, communication, and behavior.

Because most children with ASD will sit, crawl, and walk on time, you may not notice delays in social and communication skills in the first year of life. 

Looking back, many parents can recall early differences in interaction and communication. See What are the Early Signs of Autism?.

ASD symptoms may change as children get older and with intervention.

As many children with autism develop, they may likely have other developmental, learning, speech/language, behavioral issues, as well or other medical diagnoses. Other children, while not very common, may improve so much with intervention that they might no longer meet criteria for a a diagnosis of ASD.

How common is ASD?

An estimated 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with ASD by age 8, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys are diagnosed with ASD about 4 times more often than girls.

The number of children reported to have autism has increased since the early 1990s; the increase could be caused by many factors.

  • Many families are more aware of ASD.

  • Pediatricians are doing more screening for ASD, as recommended by the AAP, and children are identified earlier—which is a good thing. 

  • Schools are more aware and children are receiving more appropriate special education services.

  • There have been many changes in how ASD is defined and diagnosed

Changes in how autism is defined & diagnosed: 

​Doctors use the a book called Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to assist in diagnosing autism. In the past, only children with the most severe autism symptoms were diagnosed. But in 2013, the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) changed based on the research literature and clinical experience in the 19 years since the DSM-IV was published in 1994. Now children with milder symptoms are being identified and helped.

Several conditions used to be diagnosed separately under the term "pervasive developmental disorders" or "autism spectrum disorders" in the DSM. Those conditions were:

  • Autistic disorder

  • Pervasive developmental disorder—not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) 

  • Asperger syndrome

  • Disintegrative Disorder

With publication of the fifth edition of the DSM in 2013, the terms listed above are no longer used and these conditions are now grouped in the broader category of autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Many people may self-identify as having Asperger Syndrome, but professionals should no longer use this terminology when making a diagnosis. 

​The benefits of early identification:

Each child with autism has different needs. The sooner autism is identified, the sooner an early intervention program directed at the child's symptoms can begin.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children be screened for ASD at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkups. Research shows that starting an intervention program as soon as possible can improve outcomes for many children with autism.

Editor's note: Children with ASD may have other medical problems that may need further evaluation and treatment.  These may include seizures, problems with sleep, gastrointestinal problems (feeding problems, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and behavioral health problems (such as anxiety, ADHD, irritability, and aggression).

Additional Information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2019)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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