Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Learn about autism. The signs and symptoms, diagnoses, early identification, treatment, and other available resources. 

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives, others need less.
A diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately:
  • Autistic disorder,
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and
  • Asperger syndrome.

These conditions are now all called autism spectrum disorders.

Signs and symptoms

People with ASD often have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors or not want to change their daily activities. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to things. Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout a person’s life. Children or adults with ASD might:
  • Not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over).
  • Not look at objects when another person points at them.
  • Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all.
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone.
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.
  • Prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to.
  • Appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds.
  • Be very interested in people, but do not know how to talk, play, or relate to them.
  • Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language.
  • Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions.
  • Not play “pretend” games (for example, not pretend to “feed” a doll).
  • Repeat actions over and over again.
  • Have trouble adapting when a routine changes.
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound.
  • Lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using).


Developmental Screening
Developmental screening is a short test to tell if children are learning basic skills when they should, or if they might have delays. During developmental screenings, the doctor might ask the parent some questions or talk and play with the child during an exam to see how she learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. A delay in any of these areas could be a sign of a problem. All children should be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during regular well-child doctor visits at:
  • 9 months.
  • 18 months.
  • 24 or 30 months.
Additional screening might also be needed if a child is at high risk for developmental problems due to pre-term birth, low birth weight, or other reasons. Additional screening might be needed if a child is at high risk for ASD (for example: having a sister, brother, or another family member with an ASD) or if behaviors sometimes associated with ASD are present.

Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation
The second step of diagnosis is a comprehensive evaluation. This thorough review may include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents. It may also include other tests such as hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, or neurological testing.

In some cases, the primary care doctor might choose to refer the child and family to a specialist for further assessment and diagnosis. Specialists who can do this type of evaluation include:

  • Developmental Pediatricians (doctors who have special training in child development and children with special needs).
  • Child Neurologists (doctors who work on the brain, spine, and nerves).
  • Child Psychologists or Psychiatrists (doctors who know about the human mind).


There is currently no cure for ASD. However, research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development. Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years old (36 months) learn important skills. Services can include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others. Therefore, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has ASD or other developmental problems.

Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an ASD, he or she may be eligible for early intervention treatment services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children under the age of 3 years (36 months) who are at risk of having developmental delays may be eligible for services. You can begin looking for services and resources with Child Find, part of Colorado's system for identifying children suspected of having a delay in development. If a young child is not meeting typical developmental milestones, or someone is concerned about the child’s growth or learning, the child find teams will evaluate how the child plays, learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. The purpose of the evaluation is to determine if there is a significant delay or if there is a need for early intervention or special education services. Evaluations conducted by Child Find teams are at no cost to parents.


HCP is a program for children and youth with special health care needs that helps improve their health, development, and well-being by promoting communication between families, providers, and community resources and by connecting them to the care they need. In the past, the program was called the Health Care Program (HCP) for Children with Special Needs. Now, we are simply known as HCP.

HCP programs are located within local public health agencies throughout Colorado and have nurse-led teams with special knowledge of the complexities that families of children and youth with special health care needs experience.

Who do I contact?

A website resource from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You will find an early childhood milestone checklist, guidance on how to talk with your child's doctor, and how to ask for developmental screening and referrals.

Other resources