What is autism spectrum disorder and what are the characteristics associated with it?

Page 1: What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

child with toyAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can result in significant delays and developmental differences in a number of areas, including communication, social interaction, and behavior. The major characteristics of ASD are:

  • Persistent deficits in an individual’s social communication and social interaction across contexts (e.g., difficulty initiating or responding to social interactions, displaying or interpreting facial expressions, or showing interest in peers)
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (e.g., flapping of hands, difficulty handling changes in routine, highly focused interest, atypical responses to sensory input)

Research Shows

  • The number of individuals identified as having ASD is increasing at a staggering pace. The current prevalence of ASD is 1 in 68, up from 1 in 150 in 2000, and 1 in 10,000 in 1989.
  • ASD is approximately five times more likely in boys than in girls.
  • ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.
  • Only 38% of children identified with ASD also have an intellectual disability.
  • Parents who have one child with ASD have a 20% higher likelihood of having another child with ASD.
  • A number of studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and the development of ASD.
    (Dawson & Bernier, 2013; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC])

Wendy Stone

Wendy Stone, PhD
Professor, Educational Psychology
Director of the Research in Early Autism
Detection and Intervention Lab
University of Washington

Listen as Wendy Stone discusses some contributing factors for the increasing prevalence of autism (time: 1:34).

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differences as well as a comparison across the last two editions of the DSM and IDEA ‘04The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) presents a major change in how ASD is described and diagnosed. Most notably, several categories of pervasive developmental disorders (i.e., autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder) are now classified under the umbrella diagnosis of ASD. This means that there is no longer a diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder; children who would have fallen under this category in the past are now diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder. Click the link below for a summary of these differences as well as a comparison across the last two editions of the DSM and IDEA ‘04.

Comparison of the Diagnostic Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder Across DSM-5, DSM-IV-TR, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Definition of Autism (PDF)

Some of the terminology surrounding ASD can be confusing. For example, many people use the term “ASD,” while others prefer “autism,” and some use them interchangeably. Listen as Ilene Schwartz discusses why both of these terms are used (time: 0:44).

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Ilene Schwartz
Ilene Schwartz, PhD
Professor, Special Education
Director, Haring Center for Research
and Training in Inclusive Education
University of Washington

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