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What is autism? Here’s a complete guide to a complicated topic.

What is autism? Here’s a complete guide to a complicated topic.

Updated: November 2, 2023 · 6 Minute Read

Vivien Keil, Ph.D.

Reviewed by:

Vivien Keil, Ph.D.


  • Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference that can affect a person’s behavior and communication abilities.
  • Autism is known as a “spectrum” condition because doctors see a wide range of the type and severity of "symptoms".
  • Ask each person with autism how they want to be described. Some might prefer identity-first language like autistic, neurodivergent, and disabled.
  • Asperger’s syndrome was formally reclassified as autism spectrum disorder in 2013 to better support individuals and limit clinical confusion. Many agreed with the reclassification due to its link to antisemitism and the eugenic origins of the Asperger name.
  • There are three levels of autism that specialists refer to when suggesting types of support.

What is autism?

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex neurological and developmental condition. Autism often leads to a non-standard way of perceiving, processing, and interacting with the world. As a result, autistic or neurodivergent people often express themselves by communicating and socially interacting differently than people without autism. 


A spectrum of signs

Autism can look like a difference in behavior where someone prefers to be alone and might find communicating with others challenging. It can also look like a severe disability where someone needs full-time care in a special residential home. Signs of autism typically show up in early childhood and look different person-to-person.


Some communicate by speaking and others use nonverbal communication. People with autism show a wide range of intellectual and self-care abilities. Many have unique mannerisms and traits that include ritualistic and self-stimulating (sometimes called “stimming”) behaviors such as lining up toys or arm flapping.1 


Though having autism might not necessarily affect daily activity and interaction, autistic people can experience issues that are more difficult to manage. Below are some common signs of autism in children.2


Socialization differences. Children with autism may not show interest in playing with others, and they might:

  • Play alone and have no interest in socializing
  • Have difficulty understanding “make-believe” play
  • Not respond to their name
  • Avoid sharing toys


Problems with communication and interaction. Communication challenges are common in children with autism, and they might:

  • Have poor eye contact or a lack of facial expression
  • Have difficulty understanding simple questions or directions
  • Have difficulty discussing or expressing their feelings
  • Avoid hugs or any physical contact
  • Show a delay or regression in speech and language skills


Repetitive behavioral patterns or activities. Children with autism might display unique mannerisms and behaviors like: 

  • Repetitive movements, such as spinning or rocking
  • Rigid adherence to specific routines or behaviors
  • Self-harming behaviors, such as biting
  • Unusual sensitivity to light, sound, or touch
  • Fixated interests or preoccupations
  • Specific food preferences, such as eating only certain foods

A diagnosis can be complicated. It’s important to note that children with autism might show many of the signs listed above or just a few. If you’re wondering if your child may be on the autism spectrum, check out our free screener to learn if you need further evaluation. During an evaluation, you will review all behavior and developmental history with a professional to determine the best support for your child.


Different support levels

Doctors use the latest diagnostic guidebook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), when identifying what type of support is best for those diagnosed with ASD. People with autism fall into three levels of support. 


Level 1: Requires Support. Children who fall under this category might have problems making friends and starting conversations without the right support. They might need to follow strict behavioral patterns and feel uncomfortable in new environments. 


Level 2: Requires Substantial Support. Holding conversations and communicating with others is a bigger challenge for those who fall under this category. They might communicate or respond in ways that neurotypical people find surprising or inappropriate. They might have restricted interests and exhibit frequent repetitive behaviors.


Level 3: Requires Very Substantial Support. Children with Level 3 autism will need the most support. They find it extremely challenging to communicate verbally and nonverbally with others. They might limit interactions with others and experience extreme distress in a changing environment. 



Most people find navigating the autism space overwhelming. Whether your child is autistic or not, getting the help they need during these early years is important. We believe that therapies and interventions should support children toward living a fulfilling life, not toward making them appear “normal.” And that it should be easier finding high quality professionals who prioritize families. Check out top-rated doctors and therapists who take your insurance with our complete directory.

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Article References

  1. MediLexicon International. Signs and symptoms of autism in a 3-year-old. Medical News Today. 2021.
  2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Autism spectrum disorder. Mayo Clinic. 2018.
  3. Neggers, Y. Increasing Prevalence, Changes in Diagnostic Criteria, and Nutritional Risk Factors for Autism Spectrum Disorders. International Scholarly Research Notices. 2014. Article ID 514026, 14 pages.
  4. Happé, F. Why fold Asperger syndrome into autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-5? Spectrum. 2011.
  5. Lord, C. and Jones, R. Annual research review: re-thinking the classification of autism spectrum disorders. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines. 2012. vol. 53,5: 490–509. doi:10.1111/j.1469–7610.2012.02547
  6. Sheffer, E. Asperger’s Syndrome, the Nazi Regime and the Dangerous Power of Labeling People. Time. 2018.
  7. MediLexicon International. Levels of autism: Everything you need to know. Medical News Today. 2021.