Children's Hospital Colorado

Autism Spectrum Disorders

What are autism spectrum disorders (ASD)?

Children with autism spectrum disorders have impaired communication skills, social interaction and behavior. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) cause significant impairment in a child's thinking, feeling, language and ability to relate to others.

These conditions  usually become apparent before age three and last throughout a person's life, although the core symptoms can vary greatly across individuals and improvement in behavior is usually seen with developmental, behavioral, and educational intervention specific for a child with this diagnosis.

Changes to the autism spectrum disorders diagnosis

The classification of ASD changed in May 2013. Previously, children with autistic disorder (commonly known as autism) presented with significant problems in communication and social interactions skills, and with repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Children who had some but not all of the core symptoms were diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD, NOS). Children who acquired their language milestones on time and who normal cognitive skills were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. As of May 2013, there is one diagnostic category, Autism Spectrum Disorder for all children, rather than three separate diagnoses.

ASD impairments include delays or problems in three core areas:

  • Language and communication – verbal (spoken) and non-verbal communication like pointing, eye contact or smiling.
  • Social behavior – social interactions such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
  • Behaviors concerning objects or routines – routines or repetitive behaviors (repeating words, rocking, tapping or twirling), obsessively following routines or schedules, playing with toys or objects in repetitive and sometimes inappropriate ways, or having very specific and inflexible ways of arranging items.

What causes autism?

There is no single cause of autism spectrum disorders. Genetic factors play a strong role; although these inherited factors are complex, several genes have been shown to increase the risk of developing this condition.

There are other possible contributing causes that have been associated with ASD, such as environmental exposures, infections and toxins. We do know that these disorders are not due to poor parenting.

Is autism becoming more common?

There have been more children diagnosed with ASD in recent years. However, we don't know if that is because more children are developing the condition, or if increased awareness has made parents and doctors more likely to seek medical and developmental attention and diagnose the condition. The criteria to make this diagnosis also have been better defined through the years.

Who gets autism spectrum disorders?

ASD occur equally in all racial, ethnic and social groups. However, three populations are at increased risk for autism, including:

  • Boys – Statistics show that boys are approximately four-times more likely to be affected by autism than girls.
  • Brothers and sisters of children with autism – Among families that have one child with autism, recurrence of autism is 2-8% in another sibling.
  • People with certain developmental or genetic disorders – There is an increased risk of autism for people with certain disorders such as fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis.

Get to know our pediatric experts.

Tisha Adams, LPC

Tisha Adams, LPC

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Padmini Palat, MD, MPH/MSPH

Padmini Palat, MD, MPH/MSPH

Neurology - Pediatric, Pediatrics

Matthew Powell, MSW

Matthew Powell, MSW

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Patrick Romani, PhD

Patrick Romani, PhD

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