Autism is a developmental disorder. This means there is a problem with how the brain develops. Autism affects learning and behavior related to social contact and communication. People with autism have a hard time expressing themselves. They have trouble interacting with others too.

Roughly 2 to 6 children out of 1,000 in the United States are born with autism. This means about 1.5 million Americans have some form of autism. It affects boys more often than girls. And it occurs all over the world in people of all races, whether rich or poor.

Signs of Autism

Autism is defined by a set of behaviors. They are typically seen before 3 years of age and sometimes as early as 18 months. People can have a mix of these behaviors. They fall in a range from mild to moderate to severe.

People with autism may have the following traits:

  • Insisting on sameness; resisting change
  • Having trouble expressing needs; pointing or using gestures instead of words
  • Repeating words or phrases in place of normal language
  • Having frequent mood changes; going from being happy to being sad without warning
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Having difficulty in large group settings
  • Not wanting to cuddle or be touched by others
  • Having trouble looking people in the eyes
  • Learning information differently than most students
  • Engaging in unusual or odd play
  • Spinning objects or playing with only a few objects or toys
  • Appearing to be very sensitive or very insensitive to pain
  • Having no real fears of danger
  • Being extremely physically active or inactive
  • Having uneven gross and fine motor skills
  • Ignoring verbal cues; acting as if deaf although hearing test results fall in the normal range

People with autism learn and behave differently from each other. Their abilities and personalities vary a lot. They may be very smart or slow learners. Some may talk clearly, while others may not speak at all. Some can run fast and jump high, and others may have a hard time using a pen. Some show aggression toward others or toward themselves, even hurting themselves. Some people with autism may walk on their toes like a ballet dancer. A common trait is trouble starting or keeping up conversations.


Children with autism begin to show symptoms by 18 months of age. Parents and experts may see symptoms before this time. But a child is diagnosed when he or she shows a delay in language skills. So, most children aren’t diagnosed until 2 or 3 years of age.

An evaluation is done to check for autism. A team of mental health professionals helps make the diagnosis.

Early Warning Signs of Autism

A child should be checked for autism right away if he or she has any of these symptoms:

  • Has not babbled or cooed by 1 year of age
  • Has not gestured, pointed, or waved by 1 year of age
  • Has not spoken a single word by 16 months of age
  • Has not spoken a 2-word phrase by 2 years of age
  • Has shown any loss of any language skills at any age


There are many ways to work with and treat people with autism. Because no two people have the same mix of symptoms, treatment is tailored to the individual. The most effective treatments are based on providing behavior support. They are designed to help a person with autism lead as full a life as possible. Some people also benefit from medicine.

Here are some methods that have proved helpful for people with autism:

  • Individual Education Program (IEP): This is a school-based plan designed to meet the child’s educational, social, and communication needs.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA): ABA is a treatment that focuses on reducing specific problem behaviors and teaching new skills. It includes a variety of approaches.
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: This treatment is designed to increase positive behaviors and decrease problem behaviors. This approach can include social and communication skills training.
  • Medicine: Medicines are prescribed by a doctor, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Different medicines help different symptoms, such as anxiety, sadness, inattention, hyperactivity, or aggression. Treating these symptoms can help a person with autism to better focus on developing positive behaviors.

Evaluations, treatment, and other services are offered through the UPMC Behavioral Health Network. To find out more or to make an appointment, call toll-free 1-877-624-4100.


For more information on autism, visit these websites:

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