Autism 101: definition & diagnosis

This week’s post has been extra challenging for me because it’s difficult to summarize so much information into a few nice, tidy paragraphs and still have it make sense to the reader.

I tried my best to minimize the usage of technical and medical terminology in order to keep readers from becoming overwhelmed, but there was no way to avoid it completely if I wanted to provide a basic understanding and explanation of autism.


au-tism, n. – a neurodevelopmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behavior

In order to qualify for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a person must show continuing problems with social communication and interaction, including:

  1. problems with social and emotional reciprocity, such as problems with:
    • normal back-and-forth conversation
    • sharing interests, emotions, or affect
    • approaching, initiating, and responding to social situations
  2. problems with non-verbal communication, such as problems with:
    • interpreting body language
    • making eye contact
    • using and understanding gestures
    • total lack of facial expressions
  3. developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, such as problems with:
    • making friends
    • sharing imaginative play
    • lack of interest in peers
  4. restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as shown by at least two of the following, currently or by history:
    • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., hand flapping, lining up toys, flipping objects, repeating meaningless phrases, etc.)
    • Insistence on things remaining the same, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns and greeting rituals, needing to take the same route or eat the same food every day)
    • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects or subjects)
    • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain or temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement)
  5. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period, but might not become fully apparent until social demands exceed abilities, or might be masked by learned strategies.
  6. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
  7. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability or developmental delay.

Whew! I hope you’re still with me. Now that I’ve overwhelmed you with all that information, let’s take a step back. I should also mention that some clinicians might have a stricter adherence to the requirements before issuing a diagnosis compared to others.

All this information can be found on your own if you take the time to look for it in various places, but I wanted to provide an outline for better understanding and easier reference. By supplying the diagnostic criteria for ASD, my intent is that parents, caregivers, and anyone looking for answers will have a good idea of what symptoms to look for and what information they will need to present to an examiner.

This checklist would have been extremely useful to me as I sought a diagnosis for myself and for my son. In fact, a resource like this would have been invaluable to me about thirty years ago, when I was a child and wondering why some things were so difficult for me compared to everyone else, why I was so different. It might not have all made sense to me at that age, but it would have better than nothing, which is what I had in reality.

I’ll never get back all those years I spent wishing I were someone else and trying to be someone that I never could, but at least I have the opportunity now to help someone else in a similar situation.

In the coming weeks I will dig deeper into each of the characteristics of autism that I outlined above and give more detailed examples of these, but first I wanted to provide a brief overview of autism. Because, as the song in The Sound of Music says, the beginning is a very good place to start. (By the way, I have what you might call a highly fixated, intense interest in musicals.)

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