What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Prior to the term ASD, a group of conditions were individually called classic autism, high-functioning autism (HFA), Asperger syndrome (AS), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

As of May 2013, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association consolidates previous autism spectrum diagnoses (Autism, Asperger syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) under the official term Autism Spectrum Disorders. Evaluations and literature dated prior to 2013 often use these terms interchangeably and inconsistently. We expect Asperger syndrome to continue in common usage as a unifying force within the community.

“When you have met one person on the autism spectrum, then you have met one person on the autism spectrum.”

-Stephen Shore, author, Professor at Adelphi University, and individual with ASD

AHA serves the population with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome, as people may still identify as such. Individuals on this portion of the spectrum tend to have average and above-average levels of intelligence, which is why they are often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and even go undiagnosed. This is even more common for girls and women. The autism spectrum is paradoxical, since, inasmuch as individuals on the spectrum are alike, they are, at the same time, very different.

What are Some Signs a Person has an ASD?

Symptoms of ASD vary widely from person to person, but at least some of the following traits will be present:

  • Makes little eye contact
  • Seems uninterested in people in their environment and may appear unresponsive
  • Doesn’t seek to share things with others (toys, activities, etc.)
  • Has trouble initiating a conversation
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives
  • Struggles reading social cues, gestures, and facial expressions
  • Develops language at a delayed pace
  • Repetitive motions (such as flapping)
  • Obsessions or overly focused interests
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Hearing and/or touch hypersensitivity
  • Doesn’t adjust volume to match their environment
  • Poor coordination
  • Look withdrawn in social situations
  • Sleep issues
  • Slower language processing

These traits may manifest themselves in the following areas:

  • Socialization:

  • Awkwardness and clumsiness
  • Naiveté and gullibility
  • Poor eye contact
  • Difficulty developing peer relationships
  • Increased risk of victimization (bullying)
  • Inappropriate body language or facial expressions
  • Problems recognizing the nuances of social interaction
  • Difficulty understanding others’ feelings or emotions, but once aware will have an appropriate degree of compassion


  • Inability to maintain reciprocal (give and take) conversation
  • Extreme literal use and interpretation of language
  • Unusual speech patterns: repetitive speech, abnormal tone and/or volume, irrelevant remarks, stilted/formal manner, tendency to lecture others

Behavior & Thought:

  • Easily upset by changes in routine
  • Rigid, ritualistic behavioral patterns
  • Fixation on one subject or object
  • Repetitive movements, thoughts and/or speech
  • Peculiar eating patterns

Common Associated Behaviors:

  • Emotional sensitivity and under/overreaction
  • Fears and anxiety
  • Hyper/hypo-sensitivity to sensory stimuli (sounds, light, taste, touch, odors, pain)
  • Physical awkwardness
  • Problems with spatial awareness
  • Creative thinking and unconventional problem solving
  • Exceptional skills (e.g. memory, music, art, math)
  • Sleeping difficulties

What Causes ASD?

The cause of ASD, as of now, is unknown. Current research indicates there are genetic and environmental factors, though it is crucial to note vaccines do not cause autism. ASD can run in families, but most people who develop ASD have no reported family history of autism. There are likely other conditions present alongside ASD, such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Bipolar Disorder, and depression.

How Can I Get an Evaluation Diagnosis (Either for Myself or Someone Else)?

If an individual exhibits ASD-like characteristics, start the diagnostic process as soon as possible. While it’s never too late in life to get a diagnosis, early intervention is necessary for the best treatment, understanding, and acceptance. The earliest reliable diagnosis can be made as young as age 2. As for the process itself, it typically has two stages: screening and evaluation. The screening portion can take place at an annual checkup with a health care provider. At this point, the individual may then be referred for additional testing. The evaluation stage is conducted by a multidisciplinary team of health professionals (psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, etc.). This team will determine whether the individual’s symptoms are caused by an ASD and could also uncover co-occurring conditions.

Are There Treatments for ASD?

There is no treatment specific for autism spectrum disorders. There are, however, treatments for the co-occurring conditions. Individuals on the spectrum have a neurological difference. Those on the spectrum can be exceptionally gifted, while they often struggle with things that people not on the spectrum, or neurotypicals (NT), do not. ASD is a lifetime condition, but there are ways for individuals to overcome the hurdles their particular ASD might present. The best treatment plan is specific to the individual’s needs and is put in place as early as possible. Effective treatment generally includes:

  • social skills training
  • possible medication for co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety
  • occupational or physical therapy
  • speech/language therapy
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • parent training and support

While people with ASD may still find certain social situations overwhelming, these kinds of treatment create opportunities for them to live successful, independent lives.

The Right to Appropriate Educational Services

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Students on the autism spectrum may be educationally classified with any of the following pursuant to the IDEA:

  • Autism
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities

Pursuant to Part 200.13 of the Commissioner’s Regulations, an “autism classification” provides specific recommendations for special education services, including parent training.