What is Autism?

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism is a complex developmental condition that involves challenges with learning, social communication, and obsessive and repetitive behaviors. Also known, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), autism impacts behavior and cognition through its influence on the nervous system.

The Center for Disease Control reports that as of 2021, 1 in 44 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis.

At What Age Does Autism Appear?

Early signs of autism involve differences in development in certain behavioral, emotional, and cognitive areas. There are more remarkable development milestones in young children, so characteristics of autism can present as early as 12 to 18 months of age, sometimes earlier.

Challenges with Current Medical Model for Autism

According to an episode of Two Sides of the Spectrum, guest Dr. Mel Houser criticizes the current medical model and healthcare approach to meeting the needs of autistic people.

Accessing healthcare, whether it be setting up appointments, giving doctors your information, waiting in the waiting room, there is an expectation of executive functioning ability and sensory fortitude that doesn’t apply to all who are neurodivergent, making their process to getting help more challenging. Activities like filling out 20 pages of paperwork or picking up a phone assume a level of functioning that may not be applicable to that particular patient.

The environment of the doctor’s office may also be insensitive to the sensory sensitivities of those who are neurodivergent when it comes to lighting, sound, or even hallway and waiting room traffic.

Regarding the doctors themselves, they are typically looking at patients with neurodivergency from a “deficit-based lens” where autistic people must have certain deficits in order to be diagnosed and treated as such. This lack of training to understand autism as a system that has many different presentations and effects on autistic patients results in an inconsideration of their needs as well as an attitude that robs patients from the help they need. 

Digestive issues may be written off as simply stress or anxiety, whereas autism can certainly affect the connective tissue and colon of patients, therefore producing indigestion or constipation.

Instead of, “You have 40 health deficits,” it should be positioned as, “You are neurodivergent, and these are your particular needs.”

A neurodiversity affirming model provides therapy and support that is open to all of that community. There are community and social programs where people come together by shared interest, not diagnosis

The way to affirm all neurotypes is by shifting environments, not people.

What are the Signs of Autism?

General Signs and Characteristics of Autism

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Avoiding physical touch
  • Exhibiting delayed speech and communication skills
  • Committing to rules, rituals, and routines
  • Getting frustrated over minor changes
  • Having unusual reactions to a particular sound, taste, sight, touch, and smell
  • Struggling to understand other people’s emotions
  • Exhibiting obsessive or hyper-focused behavior on specific or a minimal range of topics, interests, or objects
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors such as body rocking, grunting, or hand-flapping

Signs of Autism in Babies (Up Until One Year Old)

  • Not babbling by four-months-old
  • Not smiling by five-months-old
  • Not laughing or giggling by six-months-old
  • No interest in games like pat-a-cake or peek-a-boo by eight-months-old
  • Not responding to their name by 12 months old
  • Not looking towards objects pointed out by others by 12 months old
  • Becoming upset by loud noises
  • Not looking to a parent for comfort in new situations
  • Content playing alone for long periods

Autistic Characteristics in Toddlers (One to Two Years Old)

  • Not pointing at distant objects by 14 months old
  • Not developing language skills (e.g., a one-year-old saying “mama” or “dada”)
  • Not using simple sentences by two years old
  • Speaking one word at a time
  • Repeating words over and over
  • Lacking interest in being around other children or playing social games
  • Not mimicking others
  • Engaging in repetitive behavior

Autistic Characteristics in Young Children (Three to Five Years Old)

  • Expressing little to no emotions
  • Difficulty interpreting emotions and facial expressions in others
  • Not appearing attached to parents
  • Lacking interest in being around other children or playing social games
  • Fixating on one specific toy or object
  • Repeating others’ or their own words or phrases repeatedly
  • Using formal language and expressions instead of the slang of their peers
  • Not developing language skills/being non-speaking
  • Difficulty with toilet training
  • Having frequent tantrums or meltdowns
  • Exhibiting physically aggressive behavior towards self or others (e.g., hitting others, banging their head on a wall, picking their own skin, etc.)
  • Engaging in repetitive behavior such as flapping hands, rocking, or twirling

Autistic Characteristics in Older Children and Adolescents (Six to 19 Years Old)

  • Exhibiting obsessive or hyper-focused behavior on specific topics
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors
  • Not making eye contact
  • Having difficulty in social settings/social interactions
  • Having difficulty identifying emotions in others or themselves
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Avoiding or disliking physical contact
  • Exhibiting unusual sleep patterns
  • Using formal language rather than the slang of their peers
  • Sticking to routines, rituals, and rules
  • Strictly preferring specific foods, clothes, or objects

Other Autistic Characteristics

  • Being non-vocal or non-speaking
  • Becoming intensely distressed in response to changes in routine
  • Exhibiting physically aggressive behavior towards self or others (e.g., hitting others, banging own head on a wall, picking at own skin, etc.)
  • Needing assistance with everyday living (e.g., bathing, dressing, eating, etc.)
  • Engaging in repetitive behavior such as flapping hands, rocking, or twirling
  • Sticking to routines, rituals, and rules
  • Strictly preferring specific foods, clothes, or objects
  • Sensitivity to foods and potential co-occurring medical conditions, such as gastrointestinal challenges

How Does Autism Develop?

The science and medical community widely agree that autism comes from a difference in brain structure and function.

There’s a misunderstanding that autism can develop during childhood or even later in life. In reality, autism doesn’t develop at a certain age; it’s something you’re born with. That said, autism can go unnoticed, with some individuals not receiving a diagnosis until their late teens or early adulthood.

While there’s no way to determine if your child will have autism prior to birth, scientists and doctors believe there are several factors that increase the likelihood of autism, including:


A family history of autism, especially already having one autistic child can significantly increase the chances of another child having the disorder.


According to the CDC, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Of course, this doesn’t mean having a baby boy assures an autism diagnosis, but it does increase the overall risk.

Parents’ Ages

Multiple studies have pointed to an increased risk of a child having autism when conceived by older parents. However, it isn’t by much, with a 2017 study calculating that parents in their 40s have a 1.58 percent chance of their child having autism and parents in their 20s only with a 1.5 percent chance.

It’s hypothesized that this increased risk comes from the greater amount of spontaneous mutations that older men can pass on to their children.

Additional Health Concerns

The possibility of a child having autism increases when they also have corresponding health complications or disorders, including:

  • Down syndrome
  • Rett syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Tuberous sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Sleeping problems
  • Stomach and intestinal problems
  • Immune system problems
  • Inherited anxiety and depression

Pre-Mature Birth

Babies born very early, specifically before 26 weeks of pregnancy, have a greater risk of having autism due to developmental disruptions.

DisorderPrevalence of Disorder Population with ASD
Down Syndrome16–18%
Rett Syndrome50-60%
Fragile X Syndrome1 in 3
Tuberous Sclerosis40-50%

How Do Autistic Children Learn Best?

Because autistic children think and interact differently than their peers, they may need support and tools to achieve their unique goals. This includes going at their pace and figuring out their preferred learning methods.

Ally Pediatric Therapy’s Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program hones in on target learning areas by helping your child succeed and grow through different technology strategies. 

Some of these strategies include:

  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT) – An evidence-based treatment approach that targets your child’s key areas of development, including motivation, social initiations, self-management, and responding to multiple language cues
  • Discrete Trial Training (DTT) – A structured teaching method where we break down each skill into smaller components
  • Social Skill Development – Social groups help your child’s social development by teaching self-advocacy skills, perspective taking, non-literal language, interoception, and social media manners/safety.
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