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what is autism spectrum disorder?

What is Autism?   Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder which affects the way the brain develops and processes information. ASDs are characterized by impaired social interactions, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. The term autism spectrum disorder incorporates several previously separate diagnoses including Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

ASD is considered a “spectrum” disorder because it varies widely in its specific behaviors and severity from one person to another. Some individuals present with such mild symptoms that the disorder may go largely unnoticed by others. In more significantly affected individuals, life-long support and care may be needed. Symptoms can also vary by age and developmental level, with younger individuals often displaying different symptoms than older individuals. In all cases, individuals with ASD or other related conditions can benefit from early and appropriate treatment.

How common are ASDs?   

Most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2018) indicate that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. The prevalence for boys is about 5 times higher than it is for girls.

How are ASDs diagnosed?   At this time, there is no blood or medical testing that can detect ASD. Rather, diagnosis is based on a pattern of behaviors which are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The most recent version of this manual, DSM-5, was published in May of 2013. Diagnosis of an ASD requires a comprehensive evaluation using specialized assessment tools and completed by a professional with extensive knowledge and training related to autism. Appropriate evaluations provide assessment across a range of areas (e.g., motor functioning, communication, socialization, play, thinking skills, coping skills).

What causes ASDs?   While currently there is no known single cause for ASDs, it is generally accepted that ASDs are biological and affect brain development. In some cases, specific genetic syndromes, such as Rett's Syndrome, Fragile X and tuberous sclerosis, result in symptoms of ASD. Other genetic causes, such as small copying errors in the genetic code, have recently been identified and research is investigating environmental factors that may be linked to ASD. In general, there appear to be different types of ASD which may be associated with many different causes.

How are ASDs treated?   Although there is currently no known cure for ASD, there is substantial evidence that individuals can make remarkable progress with early intervention and appropriately tailored therapies and interventions. The ideal treatment plan is one that coordinates therapies and interventions that target core symptoms: impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and obsessive or repetitive routines and interests. Most professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.


Autism Society of America

Autism Society of Florida

Autism Speaks

Organization for Autism Research


 Autism Spectrum Disorders are diagnosed when an individual displays underdeveloped or atypical social-communicative behavior and unusually repetitive behavior or restricted interests. Some common indicators (Red Flags) of a possible autism spectrum disorder include:

     • Not responding to their name by 12 months of age
     • Not pointing at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
     • Not playing “pretend” games (pretend to “feed” a doll) by 18 months
     • Avoiding eye contact 
     • Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
     • Repeating words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
     • Giving unrelated answers to questions
     • Getting upset by minor changes
     • Having obsessive interests
     • Flapping their hands, rocking their body, or spinning in circles
     • Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel


If you are a concerned parent or caregiver seeking a diagnosis or therapy for your child or relative, we would be happy to refer you to the ASAC clinic. For more information about the ASAC clinic located at the University of Miami visit: Please call 305.284.5263 to make an appointment or email for more information.