NB: Information presented here is only for educational purposes. While the information is accurate and up to date, it should NOT be used for self-diagnosis; only a trained psychiatrist is able to offer a mental illness diagnosis.


What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?


Autism is a mental disorder that begins in childhood and is characterized by persistent challenges in being able to engage in social communication and interaction with others. It is part of a group of diseases called autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes 4 other disorders:


  1. Asperger’s syndrome, which, unlike autism, does not have delayed development of language and cognition
  2. Childhood disintegrative disorder, which is characterized by 2 to 4 years of normal development followed by the onset of autistic symptoms
  3. Rett syndrome, which is a genetic disease that affects only girls
  4. Pervasive developmental disorder


A person with autism often has restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities. The symptoms are present since childhood, and impact a person’s everyday living.


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder display (A) restricted or repetitive-type behaviors and (B) impairments in social communication that arise during childhood. Ths symptoms of autism vary in their severity with age, hence the term “spectrum.”


People with severe forms of autism may have a difficult time with everyday activities that significantly limit the kinds of things they do. People with less severe forms of autism may appear to be perfectly normal, except in certain social situations where the impairment becomes more noticeable. Autism may exist with or without accompanying intellectual and language impairments.


Autism is 4 to 5 times as common in boys as in girls. Autism affects about 1 in 68 children, and children with autism usually display signs before the age of 2.


Symptoms of Autism:


Symptoms of autism are usually grouped into two categories: (A) Communication deficits and (B) abnormal behaviours

Communication Deficits


Children with autism spectrum disorder display deficits in both verbal and nonverbal communication. Failure or difficulty engaging emotionally with others is a hallmark symptom of autism. Children generally have difficulty making eye contact, understanding subtleties of conversation (for example, body language), empathizing with the emotions of others, and expressing their own thoughts and feelings. Severity of these deficits can range from problems understanding gesturing in conversation to lack of attempts to initiate or respond to social interaction altogether. Also common, children with autism often have difficulty adjusting behavior and facial expressions to meet specific social circumstances. Verbal deficits involve problems with spoken language and conversing appropriately with others. Deficits vary in severity, from complete lack of speech to overly literal speech. To meet diagnostic criteria, communication problems must be persistent and pervasive across contexts.


The most obvious sign that a child has autism is their inability to interact socially; they show deficits in both verbal and nonverbal communication. Failure or difficulty engaging emotionally with others is a key symptom of autism.


Children won't respond to smiles, vocal games, or other activities around them. Children won't follow other people with their eyes, or make eye contact. Facial expression and body language are neither understood nor expressed by children with autism. They may also not be able to develop emotional and social relationships. Also common, children with autism often have difficulty adjusting behavior and facial expressions to meet specific social circumstances.


Abnormal behaviors


Many children with autism find it difficult to develop language skills, and they are unlikely to start up a conversation. However, it's not unusual for a person with autism to echo phrases they hear in conversation or have heard in the past. This tendency to repeat is apparent in other behaviours associated with autism. Certain movements or motions, such as flapping the hands or twisting the body, will be repeated over and over again. Children don't participate in imaginative play but can learn and imitate actions. For instance, a child who appears to be playing telephone - dialing, talking, hanging up - will act this out in exactly the same way and order the next time. This indicates a repetition of a learned behaviour. Learning also occurs in an erratic manner - what a child appears to have learned one day may be forgotten the next.


Children with autism frequently prefer to keep a strict order around themselves. Play might consist of lining up objects, or even of being fascinated by some aspect of a toy (it's texture, smell, or colour) rather than its function. 


People with autism often prefer routines to be strictly maintained - serving a meal 5 minutes late can cause anger and frustration. An object moved out of its usual place can be extremely distressing, causing a reaction that will only stop when the object is moved back to its usual place.


Other behaviours of people with autism include:

  • acts of self-injury
  • abnormal eating, drinking, or sleeping habits
  • lack of fear, or irrational fears
  • limited activities and interests
  • mood abnormalities
  • short attention span


Although people with autism can be developmentally impaired in many ways, they might also have particular strengths which differ from one person to the next. These may include a talent for music or mathematical calculations, as well as other strengths.


Autistic children often have gastrointestinal disorders (abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, gastroesophageal reflux) as well as other health issues, including sleep disorders (not wanting to got to bed, insomnia, altered sleep-wake cycles) and epilepsy. 


Causes & Diagnosis:


Many factors may be connected to autism, but like most mental disorders, no single known causes have been found.

There is some evidence that some people with autism have structural and chemical differences in their brain.

Genetics may also be a factor. In studies of identical twins, if one has autism, there's about a 90% chance the other twin will have it as well. For siblings of a person with autism, chances of having the condition are higher than for the general population. Research has discovered autism risk genes.


The exact cause of ASD is unknown. The most current research demonstrates that there’s no single cause.

Some of the suspected risk factors for autism include:

  • having an immediate family member with autism
  • genetic mutations
  • being born to older parents
  • metabolic imbalances
  • exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins
  • a history of viral infections
  • Exposure to pollutants and toxins during fetal development
  • Events that occur before and during birth, such as low birth weight, maternal illness, birthing difficulties, and age of parents at conception.


Therefore, both genetics and environment may determine whether a person develops autism.




There are a wide variety of helpful treatments for ASD that help an individual learn better social skills and communication cues, to help them be able to interact socially more naturally. At present, like most mental disorders, there is no “cure” for ASD. But by focusing on learning ways to cope with the symptoms and pick up on social cues, most individuals with ASD lead fairly typical lives, with close friends and loved ones.


It may include social skills training, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication for co-existing conditions, and other measures.

  • Individual psychotherapy to help the individual learn social skills training, to better detect social cues, and how to deal with the emotions surrounding the disorder
  • Parent education and training
  • Behavioral modification
  • Social skills training
  • Educational interventions
  • Psychiatric medications to help with coexisting symptoms such as irritability, hyperactivity and anxiety.


With effective treatment, children with ASD can learn to cope with their disabilities, but they may still find social situations and personal relationships challenging. Many adults with ASD are able to work successfully in mainstream jobs, although they may continue to need encouragement and moral support to maintain an independent life.


How can I help someone I know with Autism?


If your child has autism, you may have to work closely with their teachers to ensure they succeed in the classroom. The organization Autism Speaks provides targeted toolkits intended for the parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends of children with autism.


Children with autism may find that certain exercises can play a role in alleviating frustrations and promoting overall well-being. Any type of exercise that your child enjoys can be beneficial. Walking and simply having fun on the playground are both ideal.


April is World Autism Month. Autism awareness also requires empathy and an understanding that ASDs are different for everyone.