Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect the brain's normal development of social and communication skills. It can lead to problems with social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication.


Symptoms and their severity vary from one child to another. Two children with the same diagnosis may act completely differently.

Some children show signs of autism very early in life, before 2 years of age, but others may not show signs for many years. Some children may even develop normally and then suddenly lose some of the skills they’ve already learned and start to show some of the common symptoms of autism.

People with autism will often show symptoms in three different areas:

  • Communication
  • Social Skills
  • Repetitive Behaviors

Social Skills

Babies are naturally social. They will gaze at people, turn toward voices, and smile. Children with autism often have trouble learning to engage in social interactions. They may show symptoms such as:

  • Trouble responding to eye contact or smiles, or actually avoiding eye contact.
  • Often seeming to prefer to spend time alone, rather than with others.
  • Failing to understand subtle social cues such as smiling, frowning, etc. and having trouble interpreting what people are thinking and feeling.
  • Trouble seeing things from another person's perspective and struggling to understand other people's actions.
  • Resistant to hugging and cuddling and unexpected touch.
  • Struggling to make friends, even when it is clear the child wants them.
  • Difficulty controlling emotions.
  • Challenging outbursts which may seem inappropriate because of intensity, quickness, or duration. These may occur in strange, new or overwhelming environments or situations or if they are feeling angry or frustrated.


By his or her first birthday, a typical toddler will often say a word or two, turn and look when hearing his/her name, and make it clear she/he doesn't like or want something. Children in the autism spectrum may struggle with communication, which for other children is natural and instinctive. They may have some of these communication difficulties:

  • Delayed language skills, even as late as age five to nine.
  • Initially the child may be thought to have a hearing problem.
  • For some children, they start having language skills, even saying words and sentences, but then suddenly lose the language skills they had.
  • These children may use language in unusual ways, such as speaking only single words, repeating the same phrase over and over, or echoing what they hear.
  • For children with language, they may have trouble starting or continuing social conversations.
  • When asking for something, these children may not comfortably make eye contact.
  • Some children show unusually large vocabularies, but have trouble carrying on a conversation.
  • They may talk excessively about a favorite topic, but fail to allow others the chance to comment.
  • Tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures may not match what they are saying.
  • They may often use a high-pitched, sing-song or flat, robot-like tone of voice and may have trouble controlling how loudly they speak.
  • Some children, who have difficulty expressing what they need, may scream or grab what they want.

Repetitive Behaviors

A child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may show some repetitive behaviors such as:

  • Specific routines or rituals such as the type of food they will eat or clothes they will wear.
  • Get upset at small changes in routines or rituals.
  • Do repeated movements such as rocking or spinning.
  • May move constantly.
  • May be intrigued by the parts of an object, such as the wheels of a toy car or the blades of a fan.
  • Unusual sensitivity to light, sound, and touches. It may be the source of some of the distress in new environments.

Even if a child shows some of these qualities, it does not necessarily mean they have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It's important to have a complete evaluation to determine if ASD is the correct diagnosis. If you have concerns, you should discuss them with your pediatrician or primary healthcare provider.

If your primary healthcare provider believes your child may have an ASD, they may refer you to Gundersen's Learning & Developmental Diagnostic Clinic. Learn more about Gundersen's evaluation and diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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