What you need to know about autism spectrum disorder

Developing an understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can help ensure you recognize any signs and symptoms early on in your child. The sooner intervention starts, the more likely it is that your child can live a healthier life.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder describes a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders that can cause problems with communication, social skills and behavior. In the United States, about one in 68 children has been diagnosed with ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it can affect children from all socioeconomic groups and racial and ethnic backgrounds, it is about 4.5 times more common in boys than girls.


In some instances, ASD is recognized as early as 18 months of age. However, it is more typically diagnosed when a child is 2 to 3 years old, which is the age when symptoms typically start to become more noticeable. These can include:

  • Difficulty with social interactions
  • Limited eye contact and emotional response — for example, not smiling at parents
  • Delayed speech
  • Limited nonverbal communication skills
  • Unusual or repetitive speech patterns
  • Repetitive body movements such as flapping hands or rocking
  • Unusual sensory interests or sensitivities, including extreme reactions to smells or sounds


While each child reaches developmental milestones at his or her own pace, you should meet with your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child’s communication and social skills or notice any behavioral problems.

A pediatrician can screen for ASD symptoms and provide referrals to professionals who specialize in diagnosing the condition. Evaluations can include direct observation of the child, interviews with parents or other caregivers, questionnaires and interviews with the child’s teacher.


Several behavioral interventions can help improve a child’s symptoms. The most well-known is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which provides families with interventions that can be folded into their daily routines. You can reinforce positive behavior through praise or a reward system where tokens or points can later be exchanged for toys. The approach builds skills across all areas of development, including play, socialization and daily living. It can also reduce challenging behaviors such as tantrums and aggression.

Additional forms of treatment include:

  • Language and communication therapy to help children who aren’t speaking, have problems with using repetitive language or difficulties with having a conversation
  • Occupational therapy to assist your child with developing the physical and motor skills necessary for play, learning and self-care
  • Physical therapy to build muscle tone and balance in children who may have problems with sitting, walking, running and jumping
  • Sensory integration therapy to help a child better process smells and sounds and other sensations that may be upsetting

While no FDA-approved medications are available to treat ASD, doctors may prescribe drugs to manage related symptoms or conditions, including:

  • Inability to pay attention
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Self-injury
  • Problems sleeping

Autism resources at UCLA Health

If you’re concerned about any symptoms your child may have, schedule an appointment with a pediatrician.

The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment aims to better understand the biological causes of autism and develop more effective treatments. It offers parents and their children several innovative treatment programs and services.

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