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Understanding the Autism Spectrum

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects about 1 in 36 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Utah, one in 40 children who are 8 years old have ASD.

Some other facts about ASD include:

  • All racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are impacted by ASD.
  • Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD than girls.

With this rate of autism, chances are you have met and talked to someone with autism, even if you didn’t know it. Autistic characteristics vary widely—some traits are more easily detected while others are less apparent.

What does ASD mean?

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that each person has a unique range of skills, traits, and challenges. It causes people to behave, communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different from other people. People with ASD usually struggle with social communication and interaction and have restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. ASD varies from person to person and can minimally to severely impact daily tasks.

What causes ASD?

ASD is a neurodevelopmental condition caused by brain differences. Sometimes there are genetic contributions to these differences, and sometimes there are unknown causes. There is still much to learn about the causes of ASD.

What are the characteristics of ASD?

The range of ways autism presents varies greatly and is unique to each individual person. Generally, people with ASD have problems with these symptoms:

Communication and interaction

People with autism have differences in how they communicate and interact with others, which can be quite challenging.

“Differences in communication may mean not speaking for one autistic person, while another person may not know how to navigate certain social conversations, such as small talk with a stranger or a job interview with a prospective employer,” says Natalie Buerger, PhD, clinical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic at University of Utah Health.


Autistic people also show differences in socialization, which can range greatly. Some autistic people prefer minimal socialization while others love socializing but show different ways of interacting or have a different understanding of social situations.

Other traits related to autism

Intense passions can also be part of autism. This intensity and focus can result in amazing outcomes and interesting discoveries. Other times, this intense focus can result in difficulty attending to other important needs.

Repetitive speech, movements, and ways of using objects occur as well.

Other autistic traits may include finding comfort in the predictability of maintaining routines and sameness. Distress typically occurs when schedules are changed or when unexpected events occur.

Sensory processing differences are common and can be represented by seeking out or avoiding certain sensory experiences. These sensory differences often impact how autistic people interact in and navigate a neurotypical world.

How is ASD diagnosed?

Because there are a wide range of symptoms of ASD, and many traits can overlap with other diagnoses, evaluation is important. An evaluation can also result in recommendations to help support autistic individuals.

If you are concerned that your child has autism or that you have autism, you may talk with your primary care provider or others (i.e. teachers, therapists, etc.) familiar with you or your child for more support.

How do I support a person with ASD?

With the variability of autistic traits also comes variable needs for people with autism. Because of this range, knowing how to support an autistic individual can be hard.

“If you are looking for ways to help someone with autism, asking them is a great start. If they cannot let you know, talk to someone who knows them well to learn more about how to support their strengths and challenges.”
Natalie Buerger, PhD

Keep in mind that people with autism may not respond in ways you expect, and reactions vary. Some may be very excited to share their interests with you, while some may not respond at all.

Others may respond with unexpected and unrelated comments or act in ways that seems rude (i.e., running away when you say hi or making a direct statement that some might find offensive). Regardless of their reaction, try your best not to take offense or be disheartened.