What is Autism?


Cathy Mancina Smith, PhD

April is Autism Awareness month. It’s a time to recognize and reflect on this disorder that has unfortunately become more common in our society. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that is characterized by delays or deficits in social interaction, social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.

I have been working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which is referred to as autism, for over 20 years. When I entered graduate school in the early 1990’s, the prevalence of autism was somewhat rare, affecting 1 in every 10,000 individuals. Since that time, the prevalence has been increasing. Last week, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new data estimating that 1 in every 68 children in the US has a diagnosis of autism. This estimate is even higher than the one from 2012 that estimated of 1 in every 88 children having autism.

Currently, there is no known cause for autism. Some believe one reason for the increase in autism diagnoses is because we are better at recognizing and diagnosing the disorder. Researchers are continuing to look for a cause of autism by investigating the role of genetics, the role of the environment and the combination of both genetics and the environment. At present time, there is not a biological marker or blood test used to diagnose autism. Autism is a behavioral diagnosis that is made by a physician or a psychologist or sometimes by a team of professionals having expertise in diagnosing autism.

Part of my job as a psychologist is to work with a team of professional to evaluate young children and determine if they have autism. The average age that a child is diagnosed with autism is 4.5 years old however we have certainly diagnosed children much younger. Many parents have told me that they knew something was not right with their child from a very young age.  Some even realized this when their children were babies. They reported things like “My baby does not look at me” “He likes to play alone” “He does not smile at me very often” When I hear these types of concerns, it leads me to ask more questions about a child’s development and behavior.

The Baby Buffer program helps teach parents about interacting and bonding with baby right from the beginning. We write about the how important it is to look, play, talk and attend to your baby. If you are doing these things you will be able to recognize if your baby is not looking, smiling, interacting or communicating with you as they should be.

Most pediatricians will complete an autism screening when your baby is 18, 24 or 30 months old. As part of the screening they will ask you questions about your baby’s development in the areas of socialization and communication. However, if at any time you are worried about your baby’s development, you should immediately talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.

The box below contains information from Autism Speaks about recognizing “Red Flags” that your child may be at-risk for autism.

The following “red flags” may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder. If your child exhibits any of the following, please don’t delay in asking your pediatrician or family doctor for an evaluation:

  • No big smiles or other expressions by six months or thereafter
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth use of gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
  • Decreased eye contact
  • Decreased interest in other children

Adapted from Autism Speaks website

Check out the following website to learn more about recognizing signs of autism in young children: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html


Although it can be scary to think something may be different about your child’s development, it is so helpful to identify any developmental issues as early as possible so that your child has plenty of opportunity for early intervention and treatment. Helping families answer the question of whether or not their child has autism is one of the most challenging parts of my job. A diagnosis of autism is never easy to hear but often parents are thankful to finally have answers about their child’s development. Specifically, knowing how to help their child get the services and supports they need to learn and develop into the best that they can be!

Check out the following website to learn more about autism success stories:


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