Autism: Symptoms

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Updated on Jan 30, 2012

As the name "autism spectrum disorders" suggests, ASDs cover a wide range of behaviors and abilities. People who have an ASD, like all people, are very different in how they act and what they can do. No two people with ASDs will have the same symptoms.

People with ASDs have serious impairments with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors again and again and might have trouble changing their daily routine. Many people with ASDs also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. ASDs begin before the age of 3 and last throughout a person's life. It is important to note that some people without ASDs might also have some of these symptoms. But for people with ASDs, the impairment is bad enough to make life very challenging.

  • Social Skills
  • Communication
  • Repeated Behaviors and Routines
  • Additional Disabilities and Conditions
  • Associated Features
  • Pattern of Development
  • Possible Red Flags for Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • What can I do if I think my child has an ASD?

Social Skills

Social impairments are one of the main problems in all of the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). People with ASDs do not have merely social “difficulties” like shyness. The social impairments they have are bad enough to cause serious problems in everyday life. These social problems are often combined with the other areas of deficit, such as communication skills and unusual behaviors and interests. For instance, the inability to have a back-and-forth conversation is both a social and a communication problem.

Typical infants are very interested in the world and people around them. By the first birthday, a typical toddler tries to imitate words, uses simple gestures such as waving “bye bye,” grasps fingers, and smiles at people. But the young child with autism may have a very hard time learning to interact with other people. One way very young children interact with others is by imitating actions—for instance, clapping when mom claps.  Children with ASDs may not do this, and they may not show interest in social games like peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake. Although the ability to play pat-a-cake is not an important life skill, the ability to imitate is. We learn all the time by watching others and by doing what they do—especially in new situations and in the use of language.

People with ASDs might not interact with others the way most people do. They might not be interested in other people at all. Some might want friends but have social problems that make those relationships difficult. They might not make eye contact and might just want to be alone. Many children with ASDs have a very hard time learning to take turns and share—much more so than other children. This can make other children unwilling to play with them.

People with ASDs may have problems with expression, so they might have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings. Many people with ASDs are very sensitive to being touched and might not want to be held or cuddled. Self-stimulatory behaviors, common among people with ASDs, may seem odd to others or make them uncomfortable, causing them to shy away from a person with an ASD. 

Social issues such as trouble interacting with peers, saying whatever comes to mind even if it’s inappropriate, difficulty adapting to change, and even poor grooming habits can sometimes make it hard for adults with ASDs  to get and/or  keep a job at their intellectual level. Anxiety and depression, which affect some people with ASDs, can make existing social impairments even harder to manage.

Social skills that many people learn by watching others may need to be taught directly to people with ASDs. When deciding what to teach, remember the social value of learning independent living skills such as toilet training and other basic grooming skills (bathing, tooth brushing, dressing appropriately, etc.). 

Because children and adolescents with ASDs are “different,” and because they are often very literal and sometimes naïve and overly trusting, they are often the target of bullies and might be easily taken advantage of. It is very important to teach all children from a very young age to be tolerant and accepting of differences. It is also important to teach children and adolescents with ASDs about personal safety and tell them to go to a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult if they need help. 

There are many strategies and curriculum supplements for teaching children and adolescents with and without ASDs about bullying and other personal safety issues.  These can be found by visiting a local bookstore, searching an online book seller, or by contacting a publishing company that specializes in disability-specific and/or education publications. Teachers and health care professionals are often good resources for this type of information as well.

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