Ideas that Work, office of special programs U.S. Department of Education

The contents of this website were developed in part under a grant from the US Department of Education, #H328M150052. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government or Project Officer, David Emenheiser.

Autism Resources

Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and non-verbal communication and social interactions, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child's educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in routine, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has a serious emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (b) (9) of Federal Regulation 34 CFR 300.7.

What Causes Autism?

There is no known single cause for autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brains of children with and without autism. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single "trigger" that causes autism to develop. Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals.

How is Autism Diagnosed?

There is no test for diagnosing autism. A child can be identified for educational purposes by the local school districts Multifactored Evaluation Team (MFE) for the provision of special education services under the IDEA. Doctors can diagnose children with autism according to the definition in the DSM IV that lists characteristics that must be present for the diagnosis. Many school districts require a diagnosis from outside professionals (doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, pediatricians. etc..) to support their educational identification, but IDEA does not require it.

Sometimes identifiable symptoms are present in children early as 18 months of age and research indicates that early intervention improves outcomes so that early diagnosis is encouraged. As with many medical conditions, many symptoms can be shared with other conditions and disabilities so that continued assessment and observation is warranted.

How Common is Autism?

Autism is the most common of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders, affecting an estimated 1 in 250 births (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003). This means that as many as 1.5 million Americans today are believed to have some form of autism. And that number is on the rise. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year. The overall incidence of autism is consistent around the globe, but is four times more prevalent in boys than girls. Autism knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries, and family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the chance of autism's occurrence.

What are the Characteristics of Autism?

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations, from mild to severe. Although autism is defined by a certain set of characteristics, children and adults can exhibit any combination in any degree of severity. Two children, both with the same diagnosis, can act very differently from one another and have varying skills and needs. Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. The person may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Communication is often described as talking at others (for example, monologue on a favorite subject that continues despite attempts by others to interject comments). Children with autism process and respond to information in unique ways. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Children with autism may also exhibit some of the following traits.

  • Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
  • Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
  • Tantrums
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Sustained odd play
  • Spins objects
  • Inappropriate attachments to objects
  • Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
  • No real fears of danger
  • Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
  • Uneven gross/fine motor skills
  • Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf although hearing tests in normal range.
View text-based website