At a glance
Challenges with social interaction and communication are common.
Autism can look different from person to person.
Autism may co-occur with ADHD and sensory processing issues.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others and the world around them. It’s lifelong — you don’t grow out of it.
Autism often co-occurs with other conditions, like ADHD and learning disabilities. They share common challenges with social skills and communication, including:
- Trouble reading nonverbal cues or picking up “unwritten” social rules
- Difficulty participating in conversation
- Not always being able to modulate (control how loud you speak, or in what tone)
- Taking language literally and not always understanding puns, riddles, or figures of speech
Another common sign is what’s known as stereotyped behavior. This may look like having a “special interest” around a certain topic or object. Or it can refer to repetitive behaviors and movements like:
- Arm flapping or rocking (sometimes called stimming)
- Repeating certain sounds or phrases (sometimes called echolalia)
There’s a lot of variation in how autism presents from person to person. Some people communicate by speaking. Others use nonverbal communication. There’s also a wide range in intellectual and self-care abilities. An autism diagnosis reflects this by using Support Levels of 1, 2, or 3. These levels show how much support a person needs, with 3 as the highest level.
People talk about autism in different ways. Doctors and schools often use the term autism spectrum disorder (or ASD) and person-first language (“a person with autism”). Some people with the diagnosis prefer identity-first language and may call themselves autistic.
Rather than calling autism a disorder, some in the autism community embrace neurodiversity. This concept says conditions like autism are neurological variations that are simply part of human difference.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.