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Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder)

Autism is also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). People with autism have challenges with communication and social skills. They also have repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, can help. Visit ASHA ProFind to locate a professional in your area.

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About Autism

People with autism have challenges with communication and social skills. They often find it hard to have conversations and may not notice social cues. Some people with autism may not talk at all, and others may not have trouble talking. All people with autism have some degree of challenge with communication (such as making friends or maintaining relationships at school or work).

People with autism also have some type of restricted interests or repetitive behaviors. They may focus on one topic, like cars or a television show, or they may be attached to a certain object or activity. A person with autism may not like changes in their schedule or changes in the way they do something.

Although the medical community uses the term “autism” to refer to a disorder or a disability, many consider autistic people to be neurodiverse—that autism is a difference, not a “disability.” It is important to respect the viewpoint of the person with autism and/or their families regarding the type of services or care they want to receive. 

When talking to or about someone with autism, some people like to be called a “person with autism,” while others prefer to be called an “autistic person” or even “autistic.” Different people prefer different terms, and each individual should be allowed to be identified in the way that they prefer.

Autism is present throughout the person’s lifetime, and you may not know what caused it. Sometimes, autism runs in families. Some possible causes include

  • genetic differences;
  • differences in brain development or in brain function; and
  • exposure to harmful materials or chemicals in the environment.

Autism can range from mild to severe, depending on how much these challenges affect everyday life.

Signs and Symptoms of Autism

You can often see signs and symptoms of autism in very young children. But, sometimes, these signs and symptoms are not very noticeable—and they might not be recognized until school age or even adulthood. Signs and symptoms may change as the person gets older, but people with autistic people likely have some challenges with communication, social skills, and behaviors.

Communication

Communication includes understanding, talking, reading, and writing. A person with autism may have challenges

  • understanding and using gestures like pointing or waving;
  • understanding and using words;
  • following directions;
  • learning to read or write—some children with autism read early but do not understand what they read (this is called hyperlexia); and
  • having conversations.

A person with autism may

  • lose early words;
  • be hard to understand;
  • repeat words or phrases that they just heard recently or that they heard days or weeks earlier (this is called echolalia);
  • use a robotic or singsong speaking voice;
  • talk very little or not at all; and
  • use challenging behaviors instead of words or gestures to communicate what they want.

Social Skills

A person with autism may have challenges relating to others. It might seem like they are not interested in others or in making friends.

It may be hard for a person with autism to

  • share attention with someone else and focus on the same object or event;
  • join in play with others and share toys;
  • respond when others invite them to play or talk;
  • understand how others feel;
  • take turns in play or in conversation; and
  • make and keep friends.

Behaviors

A person with autism may

  • repeat certain behaviors, including hand or body movements;
  • cry, laugh, or become angry for unknown reasons;
  • have trouble changing from one activity to the next;
  • get upset by certain sounds, smells, or textures;
  • like only a few foods;
  • choose foods based on look or texture; and
  • show interest in only a few objects or topics.

    Seeing a Professional

    Testing for Autism

    Testing is usually done by a team who knows about autism. The team may include a medical doctor, a neurologist, a developmental psychologist, and an SLP. The individual and their family members are always part of the team. An audiologist may also test the person’s hearing to make sure that they do not have a hearing loss.

    SLPs test the person’s communication and social skills. They may talk with others to learn about the person’s communication in settings like home, school, or work.

    Some people with autism don’t talk at all, talk very little, or have trouble talking. SLPs may test the person’s ability to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to help them communicate. AAC can include sign language, gestures, pictures, computer tablets, and other electronic devices.

    All people with autism have social communication challenges. But not all people with social communication challenges have autism. SLPs can help figure out if a person has autism or a social (pragmatic) communication.

    Treatments for People With Autism

    It is best to get help early for young children with autism. Ask about local early intervention and preschool programs. Autistic adolescents and adults also benefit from treatment to help them communicate better in school, at work, and in the community.

    A variety of specialists might work with a person with autism throughout their lifetime. These specialists can include audiologists, SLPs, psychologists, special educators, vocational counselors, and job coaches.

    SLPs play an important role in autism treatment. They can help the person with autism build communication and social skills in different settings like home, school, and work. SLPs can also help the person learn to use AAC if they need help communicating. SLPs may work with the person alone or in small groups. Groups can help the autistic person practice their skills with others.

    Depending on the person’s needs, SLPs may work on some of the following skills:

    • getting along with others in different settings
    • using a variety of communication supports
    • taking turns in conversation
    • moving from one task or setting to another
    • accepting change and expanding interests, including trying new foods and activities
    • reading and writing skills

    SLPs may also teach families and/or caregivers how to play with their child while teaching skills like

    • talking about what you are saying/doing;
    • talking about what a child is saying/doing;
    • adding extra words for what a child has said;
    • providing enough help to complete a task while still letting the child do it themselves; and
    • providing sensory supports during play.

    For autistic people who are transitioning to work, SLPs can also help them

    • write cover letters;
    • practice interview skills;
    • learn strategies to communicate at work;
    • practice advocating for their needs; and
    • problem-solve regarding appropriate accommodations.

    SLPs also work to help people with autism communicate their preferred terminology and advocate for themselves.

    See ASHA information for professionals on ASHA’s Practice Portal pages on Autism Spectrum DisorderSocial Communication Disorder, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication. See also ASHA’s resource on ASHA-certified speech-language pathologists and autism spectrum disorder [PDF].

    Other Resources

    See the list below for additional resources. This list does not include every website on this topic. ASHA does not endorse the information on these sites. 

    ASHA Corporate Partners