as adapted from the Autism Society of America
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically
appears during the first three years of life. Children
and adults with autism generally exhibit difficulties
in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions,
and leisure or play activities.
You should keep in mind, however, that autism is a “spectrum” disorder,
meaning it affects individuals differently and to varying
degrees. For example, two children, both with the same
diagnosis, can act completely differently from one
another and have varying capabilities. This is why
early diagnosis is so crucial. By learning the signs,
you can help a child begin benefiting from one of the
many specialized intervention programs available.
Autism is believed to affect an estimated 1 in 110
births. About 1.5 million Americans today are believed
to have some form of autism. And this number is on
Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education
and other governmental agencies, autism is growing
at a startling rate of 10 to 17 percent per year. At
this rate, the American Society of Autism (ASA) estimates
that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million
Americans in the next decade.
Autism knows no racial, ethnic, social boundaries,
family income, lifestyle, or educational levels; it
can affect any family and any child. Although the overall
incidence of autism is consistent around the globe,
it is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.
How autism exhibits itself
You may hear different terms used to describe children
with autism: autistic-like, autistic tendencies,
autism spectrum, high- or low-functioning autism,
more-abled or less-abled. Whatever the label or diagnosis,
children with autism can learn and can show improvement
with appropriate treatment and education.
Like all individuals, every person with autism has
a unique personality and combination of characteristics.
Some individuals mildly affected by autism may exhibit
only slight delays in language and greater challenges
with social interactions. They may have difficulty
initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their
communication is often described as “talking at” other
people instead of to them. For example, they will “monologue” on
a favorite subject despite attempts by others to interject
People with autism also process and respond to information
in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious
behavior may be present. Persons with autism may also:
- Insist on sameness; resist change
- Have difficulty expressing needs, and use gestures
or point to things instead of using words
- Repeat words or phrases in place of normal, responsive
- Laugh (and/or cry) for no apparent reason, and
show distress for reasons not apparent to others
- Prefer to be alone; act aloof
- Throw tantrums
- Have difficulty socializing with others
- Not want to cuddle or be cuddled
- Have little or no eye contact
- Be unresponsive to normal teaching methods
- Sustain odd play
- Spin objects
- Attach obsessively to objects
- Be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to pain
- Have no real fears of danger
- Be physically over-active or under-active
- Have uneven gross/fine motor skills
- Be non-responsive to verbal cues; acting as if
deaf, although hearing tests fall within normal range
Autism and the five senses
For most of us, the integration of our senses helps
us understand what we are experiencing. For example,
our sense of touch, smell and taste work together
in the experience of eating a ripe peach — the
feel of the peach's skin, its sweet smell, and the
juices running down your face. For children with
autism, however, sensory integration problems are
common, which may throw their senses off and make
them over- or under-active. The fuzz on the peach
may actually be experienced as painful, and the smell
may make the child gag.
Some children with autism are particularly sensitive
to sound, finding even the most ordinary daily noises
painful. Many professionals feel that some of the typical
autism behaviors, like the ones listed above, are actually
a result of sensory integration difficulties.
Myths and misconceptions about autism abound. Contrary
to popular belief, many autistic children do make
eye contact; it just may be less often or different
from a non-autistic child. Many children with autism
can develop good functional language, and others
can develop some type of communication skills, such
as sign language or use of pictures. Children do
not "outgrow" autism, but symptoms may
lessen as the child develops and receives treatment.
One of the most devastating myths about autistic children
is that they cannot show affection. While sensory stimulation
is processed differently in some children, they can,
and do, give affection. However, it may require patience
on the parents' part to accept and give love on the
For a complete listing of resources, visit Sarah’s autism resources for teachers and parents.
Society of America
Oldest and largest grassroots organization within the
Advocacy organization founded in 1990 to protect and
advance the human rights and civil rights of all persons
with autism, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and
related differences of communication and behavior.
Arc of The United States
National organization of, and for, people with mental
retardation and related developmental disabilities
and their families. Devoted to promoting and improving
supports and services; also fosters research and education
regarding the prevention of mental retardation in infants
and young children.
Center for Disease Control
Government agency that provides information on autism
and updates on federal, state and CDC activities relating
to the disorder and other spectrum disorders.
Other helpful organizations and Web sites
American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Promotes progressive policies, sound research, effective practices and universal human rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Autism and PDD Support Network
Provides links to information about autism, conferences, forums and message boards, grants and numerous other resources listed by state.
Autism Speaks/National Alliance for Autism Research
Dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism; and to raising public awareness about autism and its effects on individuals, families and society.
Beach Center on Disability
University of Kansas’ international center for research and other scholarship, teaching and learning.
A collaborative effort among 22 federal agencies to connect people with disabilities to the information and resources they need to actively participate in the workforce and in their communities.
Institute on Disability
Established at the University of New Hampshire in 1987 to provide a coherent university-based focus for the improvement of knowledge, policies and practices related to the lives of persons with disabilities and their families.
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities
Programs and services for infants, children and youth with disabilities. Research-based information on effective practices for children with disabilities.
Pathfinders for Autism
Founded by parents of children with autism to support and develop lifespan services, raise funds for autism research, and provide information and resources for families of children with autism.
International organization concerned with human dignity, civil rights, education and independence for all individuals with disabilities. Has chapters and members in 34 different countries and territories.
Sarah's dream: To increase understanding of autism and other developmental disabilities. Her inspirational books, essays, poems and keepsake gift card collections for adults reveal her experiences and insights. Her children's book, DVD, lesson plans and downloads, classroom disability awareness and in-service activities, and free materials and resources help parents, teachers, and peers learn the importance of friendships and community inclusion.