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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of conditions that cause challenges with social interactions, repetitive behaviors, communication and navigation of the world in a socially appropriate manner. ASD includes a wide range - a spectrum - of symptoms, skills and levels of disability. Some people with ASD are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled. Treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in 68 children has been identified with some form of ASD. The signs of ASD usually begin to appear between 2 and 3 years of age, though there are cases of symptoms appearing as early as 18 months. 

Causes & risk factors

No one knows why a person develops autism. There are some theories suggesting that premature birth may be a risk factor. In addition, ASD is a common comorbid condition in people with Fragile X syndrome (a syndrome that causes mental retardation).


People on the autism spectrum exhibit some or all of the following characteristics to varying degrees:

  • Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Limited interests or activities
  • Symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school, work or in other areas of life

Diagnosis & testing

The diagnosis of ASD is a clinical one, based on observed behaviors. A child being evaluated for autism would have to meet certain criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5.

Most parents do not report anything unusual during the pregnancy, delivery, or child’s early life prior to the onset of symptoms.


Treatment for ASD is individual, based on the child’s level of impairment. Early intervention has proven helpful to address behaviors and allow children and families to live fuller lives. Strategies that could help improve a child’s overall function include:

  • Behavioral training and management
  • Specialized therapies such as speech, occupational and physical therapy
  • Medications to treat related conditions and problems such as depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and seizure medication if the child is experiencing seizures