Understanding the
Definition of Autism


The definition of autism is a complex process. Most experts agree that autism is a brain 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 almost every day on possible causes. Some groups advocate for environmental causes such as induced labor, heavy metals, pesticides and childhood vaccinations.

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 1-150 children are diagnosed as autistic with occurrence in as many as 1-94 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.

There has also been an increase in the diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. Some parents claim their child seemed different from birth while others say their child developed normally and than 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.


Determining how severe a child's symptoms are can be based on their overall IQ and on how much daily support the child needs. 


Doctors now recommend screening for autistic 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.

If your child does not meet the specific definition of autism, instead they might have a specific learning disorder, a communication disorder, Asperger's syndrome, ADHD, 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 IEP team can decide that a child qualifies for special education services. 

  • IDEA was specifically written to give IEP teams the power to determine eligibility on a case-by-case basis.
  • For example, even if a child does not receive a diagnosis of autism from their physician, if they possess characteristics that severely impacts their ability to learn, the IEP team can recommend that the child qualifies for special education. The team can agree that the behaviors are pronounced enough to warrant a definition of autism as the qualifying condition or they can choose to qualify the 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.

    Agreeing on appropriate services may involve significant negotiations. Non-profit organizations like Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America can assist you with learning about the latest available therapies, treatment and research. Resources like the child behavior guide can provide you with information and strategies related to child behavior, pervasive developmental disorders and ADHD.

    REMEMBER...being able to clearly state why you believe a service is necessary for your child will help you to be able to convince an IEP team.

    You can check out the Parent IEP Guide if you think having this information in a workbook format would be helpful to you. You can view the table of contents to see if you feel it would be valuable to your family.

    Also, visit the section on parent support to learn collaboration skills, mediation techniques and more about your due process rights.