What Is Autism

What Is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is becoming more common in the lives of those we love and care about. There’s a lot of debate about why that is, but for the purpose of this article, we are going to stick with merely explaining what an autism diagnosis means.

The goal being to shed some light on why there may seem to be so many autistic people in your life- all of the sudden. Additionally, this article will explain why there seems to be such vast differences between one person’s diagnosis compared to another. 

I’ll stick to my American roots, and claim that Hollywood is to blame for a great deal of the confusion surrounding autism. The entertainment industry seems to present autism as a quirk that brings about exceptional skills in some shape and form. In the end, it spreads awareness, which is good. However, the development of shows based on autistic characters has increased confusion on the topic, right along side the raised awareness. 

Hollywood will continue sticking to the higher functioning end of the spectrum when creating fictional characters, because honestly, it would be absolutely gut wrenching to watch a series based on a low functioning autistic child. 

Almost like there would be zero ways to make that reality “entertaining” in any meaning of the word. Though there shouldn’t be any blame on Hollywood for making shows based on autism, the by product has been an alienation effect towards those who are experiencing a rougher, less inspirational version of autism spectrum disorder.

While there likely is an exceptional doctor who is also autistic, there are many with the same “autism” diagnosis who are incapable of communicating or developing a cognitive understanding of the world around them- whatsoever.

In short, the two do not seem to relate very well, and that’s because there is a lot of misunderstanding of what an autism diagnosis means, or how they differ from person to person. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder ASD Defined

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an early development disorder that limits a person’s ability to socially engage in the world around them. The characteristics of ASD are not only the challenges with social skills, but also repetitive behaviors, communication deficiencies (both verbal and nonverbal), and unusual strengths and differences.

In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association combined four diagnoses and placed them under the autism spectrum disorder qualification.

They are:

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
  • Asperger Syndrome
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association merged these four diagnoses together through the release of the DSM 5. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version 5). This merger of  these disorders led many to speculate that the increase in autism rates was a result of the broadened spectrum for diagnosis. What remains proven so far, is that the number of children with autism is increasing every day, regardless of who or what is to blame. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) version 5 is the tool used by clinicians to observe and diagnose mental disorders. The difference between version 4 and version 5 was the improvement of the diagnosis process through a more precise characterization of symptoms. Version 4’s lack of defined symptoms was leaving many suffering from developmental and social disorders, without the diagnosis needed to seek medical care. The DSM 5 also brought with it a refined approach to diagnosing autism in patients presented in levels. 

Levels of Autism

  • 1 – Requiring support
  • 2 – Requiring substantial
  • 3 – Requiring very substantial support

For more details check out Autismspeaks.org

Growth in ASD Rates

According to the CDC rates have risen since documentation began for ASD diagnosis. The trend shows a steady climb with rates growing from 1 in every 150 children in 2000, to 1 in every 59 children today. For added perspective the rates for autism in 1970 were 1 in every 2000 children.

The reason for this increase is debatable in that there have been changes in the diagnosis process, resulting from DSM-5. With the statistical consistency that comes from the more precise methods for diagnosis, there would presumably be a leveling off in the future.

One can only hope.

Causes & Theories

Research today is gaining ground, and thanks to groups like Spark, Autism Speaks, and chat rooms on the internet- autism research is growing more each day. The concern for many is about the hopelessness that comes with an autism diagnoses. After all, if it’s taking this long to learn about what’s causing autism, what hope does that leave for a future prevention?

(More on Spark below.)

The suspected causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) lack predictability at this point in time. However, we are starting to know a little bit, about a lot of the factors involved.

Current Links To Autism
  • ASD has been linked to over one hundred genes from a variety of chromosomes. Each to a varying degree of effect.
  • A large portion of the people with autism have slight mutations in their genes linked to ASD.
  • Irregular brain connections, and brain growth.
  • The majority of those diagnosed with ASD have defective methylation or transulfuration pathways.
  • Families with a history of similar disabilities and/or disorders.
  • Bacterial and/or viral infections in the mother, during pregnancy.
  • Congenital rubella is highly supported as an environmental cause of ASD.
  • Having a sibling with ASD increase the likeliness of diagnosis.
  • Fragile X syndrome increase the likeliness of diagnosis.
  • Diagnosis for tuberous sclerosis increase the likeliness of diagnosis.
  • Children whose mothers took valproic acid and thalidomide during pregnancy increase the likeliness of diagnosis.
  • Babies born to older parents are more likely to be autistic.
  • Pregnancies that are less than one year apart.
  • Birth complication; premature birth (26 weeks or less).
  • Problems during pregnancy such as drug use or complications causing oxygen loss.
  • Watching television and/or hypnotic programs with music. Click here for info on this theory.
  • Extreme Male Brain Theory deals with the sizing of portions of the brain, and how they relate to extreme male characteristics. Click here for more on this in depth theory.
  • The Theory of Mind – thinking, believing, dreaming, etc.
  • The Theory of Executive Dysfunction – attempts to explain the restrictions of ASD regarding interests, activities, and behaviors.
  • Central Coherence Theory – Focus is on details and not the broader scope of life and situations. Lack of ability to transfer knowledge from one situation to another.

Gender Bias In Autism Rates?

Boys are said to be 4.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, however, that gap is slowly closing. This lends some credence to the E-S theory (also known as the extreme male brain theory) in that there is an increase in systemizing motives with ASD, and a distinct lack of empathy.

The theory is centered around classifying individuals by the predominance of their interest in empathy (social) versus interests in systems (how things work). According to the study (separate from autism altogether) females averaged higher on empathy measures, and males averaged higher with interests in systems. Very similar to the symptoms of ASD when pushed to extremes.

The CDC has funded the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) in an effort to further understand what causes autism as well as other developmental disorders.

Signs and Symptoms

Individuals that suffer from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will typically have problems with communication, social skills, and general control over their emotions. Typical symptoms associated with ASD are obsessive behaviors and a detachment from relationships. 

The symptoms for autism are pretty straight forward. This wasn’t as true in recent years. 

Signs and Symptoms for Autism Spectrum Disorder are currently as follows:

  • Disconnection from the environment
  • Development and loss of skills
  • Tantrums/fits over changes in routine
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Lack of compassion or empathy for other people’s feelings
  • Repetitive actions/behaviors
  • Repeating phrases or sounds
  • Limited association to cause and effect relationships
  • Difficulty expressing needs and wants
  • Easily overwhelmed in social settings
  • Gains and losses in language skills
  • Fixating on objects
  • Limited situational awareness
  • Difficulty in social settings
  • Sensory overload


There is a reason this is called a spectrum disorder, and that’s because there is a broad range of factors that affects each individual differently. Meaning, each person’s diagnosis and behaviors to support the diagnosis are as unique as the individual.

The Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM) is a group that has been constructed through the CDC in an effort to more accurately gather data on autism, as well as other developmental disorders. Their efforts will improve data collection in the future, and possibly lead us to trends that better illustrate the defining causes of the disorder.

Diagnosis Age

For many years, the recommended age for ASD diagnosis began at age 3. At the time, the medical community accepted this practice as a sufficient for all ASD diagnosis. However, due to the increased research efforts over recent years, the age for diagnosis has been pushed down to 18-24 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics now operates within this age bracket as a rule for diagnosing ASD.

Most pediatricians have implemented ASD evaluations into the regular checkups for a children up to 36 months of age.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a curable disorder. As science progresses there are many theories regarding what causes ASD, and many advancements on how to treat those suffering from the disorder. The best option is to get a diagnosis as soon as possible, and develop a plan for addressing the needs of the affected. To ensure early detection, doctors recommend that parents stick to regular checkups during the first 36 months of the child’s life.

Find a complete list of autism spectrum disorder milestones, free materials, healthcare providers, and other resources visit the Centers for Disease ControlThe forms of treatment that are common would be speech therapy, occupational therapy, and basic socialization skills. One of the best starting points is to contact your local Community Mental Health (CMH) offices. They are typically very well equipped, and can provide you with a wealth of resources for autism and other developmental disorders.


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