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Rutherford Lab
Psychology Building
1280 Main Street West,
McMaster University,
Hamilton, ON
L8S 4K1
What is Autism?
"The test of the morality of a society is what it does
for its children." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What is autism?
Autism is an official diagnosis of the DSM IV. In order for someone to get a diagnosis of autism, he or she must show these three characteristics: 1) impaired ability to engage in social interactions 2) impaired communications and 3) ritualistic behaviour or unusual adherence to routines. Similarly, Asperger’s syndrome is considered to be on the autism spectrum, but does not include the delays in language development during childhood. It is often considered to be a less severe form of autism. PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder- not otherwise specified) is also a diagnosis that is considered to be on the autism spectrum. Children with this diagnosis often have characteristics of autism, but the severity of the symptoms doesn’t warrant a diagnosis of classic autism.
What is Autism?

So what does that really mean for you and your child? Kids with autism have a hard time making connections with other kids. They may not have as much interest in making those connections as some kids do, but might be just as hurt when they are being teased and excluded. A kid with autism might have trouble understanding emotional expressions, especially subtle ones, and may have trouble following parts of a conversation that are non-literal. Gestures, puns, sarcasm, or a sideways glance that tells someone that you’re kidding may confuse a child with autism.

Autism runs in the family. Autism is heritable, which means that if there is autism in the family, a newborn family member has a greater chance of having autism than a newborn in the general population. In addition, family members who do not have autism might have special characteristics in common, which is called the “Broader autism phenotype.” Family members of people with autism might be better at math and physics, might be better at the kind of systematic thinking that it takes to be a computer programmer. Even grandparents of kids with autism are better than average at math and physics! People with this broader autism phenotype might miss some of the subtle communication that goes on in a conversation, and might think of themselves as “geeky” or “nerdy” with other people, or they might think of themselves as shy.


Autism is treatable, not curable. There are some effective treatments for children with autism, as well as training and skills work for adults with autism spectrum disorders. The earlier a child starts treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be. Treatment often starts with a focus on social skills: learning how to interact with people, learning what is expected in particular social situations, learning what facial expressions or figures of speech mean.  But there is no cure. What that means is that children with autism become adults with autism. If they are high-functioning enough, adults with autism may live independently or enter the work force, and may face special challenges in these environments.

Is autism an alternative way of thinking? Autism is a spectrum. Some children are severely affected, and clearly disabled by autism. However, some higher functioning people with autism like to think of autism as a different way of thinking. People with autism may be better at some visual and cognitive tasks, like finding an embedded figure in a drawing or remembering visual details or visual search tasks.  If you want to read more about this way of thinking click here http://neurodiversity.com/cognitive_strengths.html

Red Flags

Are you wondering what autism might look like in a young child? Watch for the "Red Flags" of Autism: What is Autism?

Communication Red Flags

Behavioral Red Flags

Social Red Flags

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