Below are some questions and answers that I have copied and pasted from a great website called Autism Speaks. It is an amazing site with lots of resources. They have recently added a video series which is very helpful in listengin to and viewing the autistic characteristics verses just reading about them. I have taken some of the most important info from the site but if you are interested you can visit them at http://autismspeaks.org.
What is autism?
Autism, part of a group of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. The disorder is characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, and also by repetitive behaviors. Symptoms range from mild to severe. One milder form of the disorder is known as Asperger Syndrome. Other developmental disorders that fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorders are Rett Syndrome, PDD NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder), and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors in their child or their child's failure to reach appropriate developmental milestones. Some parents describe a child that seemed different from birth, while others describe a child who was developing normally and then lost skills. If you have concerns about your child's development, don't wait: speak to your pediatrician about getting your child screened for autism.
What does it mean to be “on the spectrum”?
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means it manifests itself in many different forms. A diagnosis can range from mild to severe, and though children who have it (i.e. are on the spectrum) are likely to exhibit similar traits, they're also as individual as the colors of a rainbow, each one managing a grab bag of symptoms. While one child may rarely speak and have difficulty learning how to read and write, another can be so high-functioning he's able to attend classes in a mainstream school. Yet another child may be so sensitive to the feel of fabric that all tags must be cut off before he wears a piece of clothing, while his friend who's also autistic may not have any sensory issues at all.
How can I tell if a child is autistic?
No two autistic kids are alike, but there are some signs that many of them share and that experts agree may be as recognizable as early as the toddler years, or even sooner. Children on the spectrum generally have difficulty relating to others; they may hardly speak, and if they do, they may not communicate in ways that other people can easily understand (they may screech loudly when they're upset, for example, instead of crying). They don't usually sustain eye contact – it's too intense -- and have trouble reading social cues. They're also prone to repetitive behaviors, flapping their hands constantly or uttering the same phrase over and over again. They may also be more sensitive than typically developing children, or dramatically less so, to sights, sounds and touch.
What should I do if I suspect something is wrong with my child?
Don't wait--talk to your doctor about getting child screened for autism. New research shows that children as young as one may exhibit signs of autism, so recognizing early signs and knowing developmental milestones is important. Early intervention is key.
How do I get my child the help he needs?
You can start by making sure he has a reputable healthcare team by his side. That means finding doctors, therapists, psychologists and teachers who understand and have experience with autism and can respond to his shifting needs appropriately. Ask your child's pediatrician to recommend a developmental pediatrician with whom you can consult about the next step. She, in turn, can guide you toward various intervention programs and suggest complementary therapies. It also helps to plug into an already existing network of parents facing the same challenges as you.