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Autism Defined



Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complicated developmental disorder, which affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups of all ages, and has no known singular cause or cure. The Autism Society of America describes autism as “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”1 Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because it has varying degrees of severity.

In May of 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics released the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 includes a new definition for autism. In the new publication, the diagnosis is called Autism Spectrum Disorder, and will combine the subdiagnoses of Autistic Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and Disintegrative Disorder.2 Furthermore, the new diagnostic criteria mandate that symptoms must be present in two areas: 1) social communication/interaction, and 2) restricted and repetitive behaviors.2 Read about the new diagnostic criteria for ASD in the DSM-5 here.

In addition to a new definition for ASD, the AAP created new diagnostic criteria for a disorder known as Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder (SCD). According to the AAP, “SCD is characterized by a persistent difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication that cannot be explained by low cognitive ability.”3 Read the full diagnostic criteria for Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention2 give the following description for the three forms of ASD as they were previously described in the DSM-IV:

  • Classic Autism/ Autistic Disorder: A disorder which prevents the individual from displaying functional social, communication, behavioral, and intellectual abilities.

-DSM-IV Criteria for 299.00 Autistic Disorder 4

  • Asperger's Syndrome: A mild form of autism where the individual may display some symptoms of autism, such as social, communication, and behavioral difficulties, but do not necessarily display poorly functioning language and intellectual abilities.

-DSM-IV Criteria for 299.80 Asperger's Disorder 4

  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS): This disorder will affect a person’s ability to socialize and communicate on a normal level, but rarely extends to intellectual or language difficulties.

-DSM-IV Criteria for 299.80 PDD-NOS (Including Atypical Autism 4


Due to the dramatic increase in ASD diagnosis, there are currently more funded studies around the globe relating to examining the characteristics of ASD, investigating the causes of ASD, and developing effective interventions for ASD than ever before. Children with autism generally experience social and communication deficits and often engage in repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, and activities.3 Parents concerned with their child’s developments should be conscious of their children’s developmental milestones and the symptoms of autism.



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