What is Autism?

boy with blocks

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges. This “Questions and Answers” will answer some common questions about autism in young children.

How common is autism?

In the United States, 1 in 54 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorder?

Young children with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other kids. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of children with ASD can vary widely. Some children with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

How early can you notice signs of autism?

Children can be diagnosed with autism as young as 18 months. Parents and caregivers can learn to recognize the early signs of autism in infants and toddlers.

What are some of the signs of autism?

Some of the signs of autism are:

  • repeating actions over and over again
  • not looking at objects when another person points at them (called joint attention)
  • avoiding eye contact
  • wanting to be alone
  • preferring not to be held or cuddled
  • appearing to be unaware when people talk to them, but responding to other sounds
  • not playing “pretend” games, such as playing “kitchen” or “cooking”
  • losing skills they once had, such as when a child talks, using 10–15 words regularly with others, then stops talking altogether or when a child smiles and laughs when playing with a peer, then no longer looks at or “notices” a peer when playing near them

How will I know whether a child has autism?

First, familiarize yourself with typical child development. CDC’s Developmental Milestones checklists for children birth through age 5 can be helpful in seeing what is typical for a child of a particular age. Download the free Milestone Tracker app for similar information.

Teachers and families can learn more about the unique characteristics of autism spectrum disorder in the free online course and video Many Faces of Autism from the OCALI Autism Certification Center.

What can I do if I suspect that a child in my care has autism?

If the child is not meeting developmental milestones, or if you have noticed any of the signs mentioned in this Q&A, you can seek additional help. If the child is age 3 or older, you can get a developmental screening through your pediatrician or your local school district. For an infant or toddler, you can request a screening through your pediatrician or an evaluation through early intervention. It is important not to “wait and see” for a diagnosis. Early intervention is available to help very young children make progress in their learning and development.

How do I access community-based therapy services using insurance or private pay for a child with autism?

After the child has received a medical diagnostic evaluation and has been diagnosed with autism, the diagnosing clinician (M.D. or Ph.D.) will make individualized recommendations for services in your community. Families can then select and enroll in therapy services, which may be paid for through a family’s medical insurance or out-of-pocket. According to The Autism Program (TAP) of Illinois, common community-based therapy services include speech therapy, behavioral therapy, and occupational therapy.

How do I access school-based special education services for a child with autism ages 3-5?

After the child has received a medical diagnostic evaluation and has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, you can request a comprehensive evaluation from your local school district to see whether the child is eligible for any school-based special education services. If your child has not received a medical diagnosis of autism but you are concerned about their development, you can also request a screening or evaluation from the school district. If eligible, these school-based services, such as early childhood classes, speech and language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and others are free to families.

How do I access early intervention services for an infant or toddler with autism?

If the child is under age 3 and has been diagnosed with autism through a medical diagnostic evaluation, you can request an evaluation through early intervention to see whether the infant or toddler may be eligible for therapies and services through the state’s early intervention program. An infant or toddler may also be eligible for early intervention services if they have a significant delay in their development.

How can I get support in parenting a child with autism?

Children with autism may exhibit challenging behavior, such as aggression, self-injury, and social-communication issues, which can be difficult and stressful to deal with at home. Small changes at home can help, such as building visual schedules or checklists and supporting a child’s communication efforts.

Connecting with other families of children with autism can be very helpful, too. Many communities host support groups for parents. ARC of Illinois has a Family-to-Family Health Information Center for this very purpose.

Additional resources to help family members of children with autism are listed in this resource list.

How can I support a child with autism in my classroom?

Early childhood educators can use many inclusive techniques to support all children in their classrooms, such as

This IEL podcast focuses on how preschool teachers can help children with ASD succeed in inclusive preschool classrooms.

Can children grow out of autism?

Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life. With services and support, day-to-day challenges may decrease as individuals learn new behaviors, communication skills, and mature in their development.

Web Resources

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Family Child Care
  • Home
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Infants and Toddlers (Birth To Age 3)
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Reviewed: 2021
English title: What is Autism?