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A parent's guide to autism

Updated: May 16, 2019

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopment disorder that effects an individual's ability to communicate and interact with others. The range and severity of symptoms can vary widely. Common symptoms include difficulty with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors.

Speech language pathologists work with children with autism to address social communication, play skills, and receptive and expressive language.

What causes autism?

Researchers do not know the exact cause of autism. It is agreed upon that autism is likely caused by multiple factors. Research suggests that autism develops from a combination of genetic, non-genetic, or environmental influences. Ongoing research is investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics, and medical problems.

While in most cases, the cause for autism is unknown, some possible causes include:

  • Genetic syndromes

  • Severe infections, like meningitis and encephalitis, that can cause brain damage

  • Exposure to an illness during pregnancy, like rubella, or to harmful chemicals

What are the symptoms of autism?

Each child with autism is unique. Below are some early signs and symptoms of autism. This list is not comprehensive, nor will each child display all of the behaviors listed. The following signs and symptoms are adapted from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, and Autism Speaks resources.

Social Communication Skills

  • Does not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over)

  • Does not look at objects when another person points at them

  • Has trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people

  • Avoids eye contact and want to be alone

  • Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings

  • Prefers not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to

  • Appears to be unaware when people talk to them

  • Is very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play, or relate to them

  • Repeats or echos words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language

  • Has trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions

  • Does not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll)

  • Does not recognize and express one’s own emotions

  • Does not take turns in conversation

  • Has trouble gauging personal space (appropriate distance between people)

Repetitive, restrictive behavior

  • Has repetitive body movements (e.g. rocking, flapping, spinning, running back and forth)

  • Has repetitive motions with objects (e.g. spinning wheels, shaking sticks, flipping levers)

  • Stares at lights or spinning objects

  • Has ritualistic behaviors (e.g. lining up objects, repeatedly touching objects in a set order)

  • Has narrow or extreme interests in specific topics


  • Has trouble adapting when a routine changes

  • Has unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound

  • May have fine or gross motor challenges

  • Have an interest in only a few things. He/ she may talk about only one topic or keep staring at one toy.

How do I know if my child has autism?

The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R) is a quick screener that you can fill out at home. It’s a series of 20 questions about your child’s behavior. The results will let you know if a further evaluation may be needed. You can use the results of the screener to discuss any concerns that you may have with your pediatrician.

A comprehensive evaluation will provide results about an autism diagnosis. Specialists who can do this type of evaluation include developmental pediatricians, child neurologists and, child psychiatrists and psychologists. The evaluation will likely include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents. It may also include a hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical testing.

When is autism diagnosed?

Currently, the average age of diagnosis in the United States is between 3 and 6 years of age, though some children can be diagnosed as young as 2.

Will my child outgrow autism?

While there is no cure for autism, all children with autism are capable of making progress with intensive therapy. Autism is thought to be a lifelong condition, though a small number of children lose the core symptoms and shed the diagnosis with intervention.

What services does my child with autism need?

Local early intervention and preschool programs can help your child at home and at school when he is young. Your child may work with different professionals to treat autism. The team may include a speech-language pathologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, dietitian, developmental specialist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and others as needed.

What is the speech-language pathologists role in treating autism?

The speech-language pathologist will work with your child on social skills and communication, which are likely the areas your child will have the most trouble. The most important thing is that your speech-language pathologist creates an individualized treatment plan for your child, so they get help in the specific areas they need.

A speech-language pathologist will help your child understand words and communicate. Communication may be with words and sentences, or with pictures, or a communication device. They will help build social skills by teaching and practicing greeting, conversation skills, and helping the child build relationships with others. The speech-language pathologist may also help develop play skills and improve attention.

Other resources for autism:

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