Understanding the
Definition of Autism

 The definition of autism is a complex process. Most experts agree that autism is a development disorder characterized by impaired social interactions, limited communication and repetitive behaviors. Signs usually appear before age 3. The cause isn't clear, but recent scientific studies believe there is a strong genetic base. New research comes out regularly on possible causes. 

Autism occurs four times more in boys than in girls. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders has drastically risen since the 1980’s. Some studies now claim 1-100 children are diagnosed on the spectrum with occurrence in as many as 1-80 boys. It is unclear if this is due to the different definitions of autism used today, diagnostic practices or if the actual amount of cases has increased.  Some parents claim their child seemed different from birth while others say their child developed normally and then later in life, lost skills. 


Signs usually are noticed during the first two years of life. Symptoms can begin around 6 months of age and become established by 2-3 years of age. They usually continue throughout adulthood. Autism is not distinguished by a single symptom, but a group of symptoms that include the following:

Social and communication impairments include a lack of response to social stimuli, lack of smiling or eye contact and not responding to one’s name. Other characteristics are lack of pretend play, lack of imitation, inability to sustain conversation, aloofness and acting like they don’t seem to hear.

Repetitive behaviors are called stereotypy and involve repeated movements such as hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling and body rocking. Compulsive behavior involves arranging objects or toys in stacks or lines.

Restricted interests include an unvarying pattern of daily activities and limited interests like a pre-occupation with a single TV show, toy or game.

Self injuries are movements that injure or can injure the child like eye poking, skin picking, hand biting and head banging.

Sleep problems can include insomnia, nocturnal awakening and early morning wakening.


Doctors recommend screening for symptoms at baby well checks beginning around 12 months. Speak to your pediatrician if you notice the following:

  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No gesturing by 12 months
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No two-word spontaneous sentences by 24 months
  • Any loss of language or social skills.

The definition of autism is based on a child's behavioral symptoms. To receive a diagnosis, a child must have at least six symptoms. Two must be from the social interaction list, one from the impairment of communication list and one demonstrating restricted and repetitive behavior. The onset of symptoms must occur before age 3.


Autism is one of the qualifying conditions outlined in the thirteen categories of special education as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Beginning at age 3, a child with an official definition of autism is entitled to a free appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. What is appropriate depends on your child’s unique needs.

Early intervention for children with autism has been found to be key to improving functioning. County regional centers and public school districts must provide, at no cost to you, an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). This plan is a written document that describes your child’s current level of functioning and the anticipated outcome. It also lists the specific services that will be provided in order to meet the needs of your child.

All school districts must offer preschool early intervention programs for children with disabilities and continue services through age 23. This includes transition services to the elementary school. The most important goal of any educational program should be to help the child become more functionally independent.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA), structured teaching, speech and language therapy, social skills therapy and occupational therapy are all part of special education services available to autistic children. Intensive ABA has shown to be effective in improving the functioning of pre-school children and is well established at improving intellectual


Sample goals for a child with receives a definition of autism might focus on social skills, expressive verbal language, increased engagement, improvement of fine and gross motor skills, increase in pretend play and increased independent skills. Medications and alternative therapies are also available from private therapists but parents may find these to be expensive.


School districts are legally responsible to pay for an outside service ONLY if it can be shown by the IEP team that the service is needed to meet the goals outlined in the IEP AND the district itself cannot provide the service. 

Private placements are NOT usually granted and are often a point of contention.  School districts usually receive adequate funding and have the capability to provide most agreed upon services making private placements unnecessary.

If your child does not meet the specific definition of autism, they might have a specific learning disorder, a communication disorderADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder, or another type of learning disability.

If your child does not have one of the 13 categories of special education, don't give up on finding a diagnosis. Even if your child does not meet the official definition of autism the law is specifically written to give an IEP team the power to determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis and can qualify a child under the heading of Other Health Impaired. 

Not everyone agrees on what defines autism. Because the definition of autism relies on a subjective analysis of symptoms and not on a medical test, it is possible for different evaluations to come up with different recommendations. At the IEP meeting, agreeing on appropriate services for your child can be frustrating. Remember, that developing the IEP is a collaborative process between you and the school district.

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