Have you ever stepped into a discussion in progress and felt embarrassed to ask basic questions such as, “What are we talking about here?” or “What does that word mean?” … ?

You battle with your pride, trying to convince yourself to speak up, but it’s hard. When it feels as though everyone else knows what they’re talking about, it’s difficult to be the one with unanswered questions.

The good news is that we’ve all been there, and we don’t want you to feel that way when it comes to helping your child with autism.

That’s why the FirstPath Autism team created this post to answer some of the most common questions we receive, and to clarify some common misconceptions, too.

What is autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication and socialization. It impacts each person differently, and it’s a complex condition that researchers and scientists are still working to understand.

Signs of autism tend to arise before a child reaches age three, though recent studies indicate that evidence of autism may present itself as early as age one.

According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, autism is characterized by difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, deficits in social interaction, and repetitive behavior patterns. (Autism Speaks offers a full reprint of the diagnostic criteria.)

I’ve heard people say that autism is a “spectrum disorder,” what exactly does that mean?

A popular saying in the autism community is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” There is great diversity of ability and personality within the autism community.

So, while the central diagnostic characteristics appear in everyone with the disorder, they vary tremendously in terms of intensity – hence the “spectrum” terminology.

One person with autism is nonverbal, while another is highly verbal and articulate. One individual has a high degree of sensory sensitivity, and another seems unaware of the world around him. The list goes on.

A nuanced understanding of autism means accepting that everyone on the spectrum has different challenges and gifts. And the best autism resources and programs support each unique individual in living up to their own potential.

How many people have autism in the United States and around the world?

The current US autism rate is 1 in 45, according to the latest November 2015 CDC report. That means that 2.25% of all children in the US have an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Worldwide, the CDC’s 2014 autism estimate is 1% of the overall population of 7.1 billion.

The incidence of autism has risen dramatically in the US over the last two decades, increasing from approximately 1 in 10,000 in the early 1990’s to the 1 in 45 rate today.

While greater awareness and changing diagnostic criteria have played a role in these larger numbers, there is little question that autism itself is on the rise. As such, there’s an ever-growing need for high-quality autism resources to support individuals, families, and providers.

What causes autism?

That’s one question that has puzzled researchers and scientists (not to mention families!) for decades. There is no single cause of autism. However, several contributing factors have been identified.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Genetic variations
  • A combination of genetic and environmental factors
  • Advanced parental age
  • Maternal illness during pregnancy and certain birth complications

Autism affects about five times as many boys as girls, and there is a genetic component to the condition. However, the genetic expression of autism varies significantly from person to person.

I hear terms such as Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) mentioned as part of autism, but I don’t understand how all of the different labels fit together.

It’s understandable to be confused about this! Basically put, the reason for the puzzlement is that diagnostic criteria and labels have changed over the years.

The DSM-IV (the previous version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) included separate entries for Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS.

Asperger’s Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism, and PDD-NOS is an overarching term for several disorders that involve social-communication delays.

The DSM-V (the most recent version, published in 2013) eliminated Asperger’s Syndrome, Autistic Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and PDD-NOS as separate diagnoses, integrating them all within the expanded definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Many individuals prefer to employ the preexisting and familiar labels, so you’ll still hear them mentioned frequently.

I know that sensory issues are a part of autism spectrum disorder. What is sensory processing disorder (SPD), and how does it connect with ASD?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that impacts how the brain communicates with the body. Individuals with SPD have trouble converting sensory signals into so-called typical responses.

SPD manifests differently in each person, so one person with the disorder may be hypersensitive to touch, sound, sight, smell, or taste, while another is hyposensitive. One flinches at the slightest brush of a hand, while another cuts his knee and doesn’t seem to feel any pain.

As we wrote in our post How autism and sensory processing disorder are linked, “ASD and SPD are not the same, but the overlap between them is significant. Both are brain-based differences, neurological conditions that impact a child’s development.”


And the incidence of SPD is significantly higher within the autism community compared to the general population.

Are there any proven treatments for autism?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) tops the list of safe, proven interventions. It has a strong track record for promoting development in individuals on the spectrum.

It is approved as an autism treatment by the Association for Science in Autism Research, the United States Surgeon General, and the National Institutes of Health.

What is ABA, exactly?

As we wrote in our post Autism Resource: What is ABA Therapy? “ABA is the research-based process of helping individuals to change and better specific behaviors.”

It’s a series of lessons and exercises specifically designed to help children with autism learn social skills, emotional regulation, and daily life management.

Through consistent practice, children with autism can master these key skills and increase their independence at the same time.

ABA is what we offer as an autism resource here at FirstPath. Our video lessons empower parents to provide in-home behavior support for children, and they serve as an accessible supplement for in-person ABA sessions as well.

Did this post help you to understand autism better? Then be sure to pay it forward and share it with your friends!