Autism spectrum disorder is a complex developmental difference that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

While there is much speculation and debate, there is no known single cause of autism.  Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. Again, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, or many others besides. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.

Know the Signs:

Early Identification Can Change Lives

The characteristic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may be apparent in infancy (18 to 24 months), but they usually become clearer during early childhood (24 months to 6 years).  For others, they might not be formally diagnosed until well into adulthood.

As part of a well-baby or well-child visit, your child’s doctor should perform a “developmental screening,” asking specific questions the your baby’s progress. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five behaviors that warrant further evaluation:

  • Does not babble or coo by 12 months
  • Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not say two-word phrases on his or her own by 24 months
  • Has any loss of any language or social skill at any age

Any of these five “red flags” does not mean your child has autism. But because the disorder’s symptoms vary so widely, a child showing these behaviors should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team. This team might include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech/language therapist, learning consultant or other professionals who are knowledgeable about autism.

Consider attending one of our Autism 101 workshops for resources, materials, and most importantly – support.

For more information about first signs and milestones, visit Act Early Wisconsin.

Getting a Diagnosis

An accurate diagnosis is based on observation of several things – including the individual’s communication, social interaction, and his or her activities and interests.  At present, there is not a clear single diagnostic tool for autism spectrum disorders.

Because many of the behaviors associated with autism are common to other disorders, some medical tests can be performed in order to identify other causes or diagnoses. People with autism often have symptoms of various co-occurring mental, behavioral and physical conditions.

Medical professionals who may have experience with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders include developmental pediatricians, neurologists (specifically pediatric neurologists), and child and adolescent psychiatrists.

Not every one of these professionals has experience with autism, so parents and caregivers should seek recommendations of knowledgeable professionals in their area from.