Understanding autism spectrum

Last reviewed: May 16, 2024

Autism spectrum is a developmental condition that influences communication, social interactions, and behavior. The term “spectrum” reflects the wide range of characteristics and experiences among autistic individuals.

Autism affects how a person perceives and interacts with others, which can result in different ways of communicating and socializing.

Autism spectrum may include unique or repetitive types of behavior. Abilities such as thinking, learning, and problem-solving can vary widely. Some individuals need significant support in their daily lives, while others may require little to none.

Autism can impact education and employment. For example, 85% of college-educated autistic people are unemployed. The level of support provided by national and local authorities and societal attitudes are crucial in determining the quality of life for autistic individuals.


Children are routinely screened at wellness visits for developmental milestones. During these visits, the pediatrician evaluates each child’s behavior and development. Encouraging conversations between children, families, and support providers about the abilities and goals of the child is key.

If any developmental delays or behaviors suggest autism, the pediatrician will provide a referral to a developmental pediatrician or pediatric neurologist.

There are screening tests for autism, like the M-CHAT designed for toddlers. However, the diagnosis of autism is often missed or delayed in many people, particularly girls and women.

Autism can be detected as early as eighteen months. By the age of two, a diagnosis by an experienced clinician is reliable. Many children, however, do not receive a final diagnosis until they are older. This delay in intervention can deprive them of early support.

Signs and symptoms:

Autism is a spectrum, meaning every individual has a unique set of strengths and challenges. Some autistic people may experience differences in emotional and social skills, attention, learning, or reactions to others. Symptoms of autism start during early childhood and can last throughout life.

Sometimes, children show signs of autism in early childhood, such as reduced eye contact, indifference to caregivers, or lack of response to their name. Other autistic children may develop typically at an early age but suddenly become aggressive or withdrawn or lose language skills. These signs can be seen by the age of two years.

It is crucial to know that each individual has different skills in learning, adapting, communicating, and applying knowledge. Thus, every person on the spectrum is different.

Social communication and interaction skills:

Autistic people differ in their social communication and interaction skills. When evaluating for autism, children may show some of the following signs:

Restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests:

An autistic child or adult may have repetitive patterns or limited activities, interests, or behaviors, including:

Fast facts:

The number of autistic children is rising. While there is an actual increase in the number of cases, this could also be due to more comprehensive screening.

Autism affects children of all nationalities and races. It is more common when the individual experienced birth complications or was born to older parents.

People assigned male at birth are four times more likely to be autistic. Families where one child is autistic are more likely to have another autistic child.

Children with other medical conditions are more likely to be autistic, particularly with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, including fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis.

Learn more about warning signs, treatment options, and advice regarding neurodivergent individuals at Therapheal.

The history of mistreatment

The history of mistreatment for autistic and neurodiverse individuals is long, but there are some major issues that impact autistic people today. Unfortunately, autism has been pathologized by society and medicine. Many major organizations, such as Autism Speaks, have been criticized for promoting awareness over services with practical impact for autistic people. They also paid their executives more than half a million and for many years lacked any autistic people on their executive board.

Historically, autism “activists” pushed for person-first terminology, such as person with autism. However, today most autistic people prefer identity-first terminology and have reclaimed the term autistic.

The overarching goal is to provide an inclusive world for neurodivergent people designed by neurodivergent people. There are resources and advocacy groups for autistic people and their allies, like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

The strengths of autism

There are many examples of the benefits associated with autism, such as an exceptional ability to pay attention to detail in visual or auditory information, creative talents, technical abilities, and expertise in niche areas. Character strengths include honesty, loyalty, and a solid moral compass.

While each person is different, many autistic people demonstrate valuable characteristics. As adults, there are specific career opportunities where these strengths set them apart.



Last reviewed and updated by on May 16, 2024

Caitlin Goodwin, DNP, RN, CNM, is a Board Certified Nurse-Midwife, Registered Nurse, and freelance writer. She has over twelve years of experience in nursing practice.

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