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Autism Fact Sheet

— National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

What is autism?

Autism (sometimes called “classical autism”) is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).   Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests.  Other ASDs include Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS).  Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have autism.  Males are four times more likely to have autism than females. 

What are some common signs of autism?

There are three distinctive behaviors that characterize autism.    Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests.  These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

The hallmark feature of autism is impaired social interaction.  Parents are usually the first to notice symptoms of autism in their child.  As early as infancy, a baby with autism may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time.  A child with autism may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement. 

Children with autism may fail to respond to their name and often avoid eye contact with other people.  They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior.  They lack empathy. 

Many children with autism engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.  They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me.”  Children with autism don’t know how to play interactively with other children.  Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking. 

Many children with autism have a reduced sensitivity to pain, but are abnormally sensitive to sound, touch, or other sensory stimulation.  These unusual reactions may contribute to behavioral symptoms such as a resistance to being cuddled or hugged.   

Children with autism appear to have a higher than normal risk for certain co-existing conditions, including fragile X syndrome (which causes mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis (in which tumors grow on the brain), epileptic seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder.  For reasons that are still unclear, about 20 to 30 percent of children with autism develop epilepsy by the time they reach adulthood.  While people with schizophrenia may show some autistic-like behavior, their symptoms usually do not appear until the late teens or early adulthood.  Most people with schizophrenia also have hallucinations and delusions, which are not found in autism. 

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