Autism in children: What is it and how can you help?

child with adult playing with blocks in a classroom environment

Autism affects about 1 in every 36 children. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by challenges with social interaction and communication, as well as behaviors or interests that can seem unusual and/or repetitive. Autism symptoms vary from one child to the next and can even change as the child grows into adulthood. Symptoms can present differently across different cultures and gender identities.

The pattern of behaviors associated with autism was first noticed by Leo Kanner in the 1940s. However, it was not until the 1970s that autism drew greater attention in research. At that time, autism was thought to be very rare. In the 1990s, awareness rose that autism symptoms occur along a spectrum and in many cases can be quite subtle. With this increasing awareness, identification rates of autism began to increase as well. Currently, autism is viewed as a spectrum condition with a range of symptoms across individuals. There are many people who experience some autism symptoms but do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

Some examples of challenges with social interaction and communication include:

  • Difficulties with back-and-forth conversations
  • Finding it hard to make friends or preferring to play alone
  • Differences in use of nonverbal communication (e.g., avoids or does not keep eye contact, lack of using gestures, shows fewer facial expressions)
  • A tendency to use toys in a nonfunctional fashion (e.g., lining toys up) rather than in a creative manner

Examples of restrictive interests and repetitive behaviors include:

  • Repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning, or flapping of hands
  • Difficulties with changes in routine, such as a change in one’s daily schedule
  • Is focused on parts of objects rather than the whole (e.g. wheels of a toy)
  • Has unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel

Early signs of autism also often include delays in meeting developmental milestones.  Diagnosis is based on the child’s developmental history and behavior. This requires information from parents and teachers about a child’s behavior in different settings, as well as an observation of the child’s behavior by an experienced clinician. Many factors—genetic, biological, and environmental—have been linked to an increased risk of autism. This includes genetic conditions and variants, as well as pregnancy and birth complications, exposure to toxins, and parental age.

Each child has their own set of strengths and challenges. Not every child with autism needs intervention. In fact, not all individuals with autism identify as having a disorder and there is growing understanding of autism as a form of neurodiversity. However, research shows that behavioral interventions can help some individuals. Additionally, many children with autism benefit from school-based services and support, such as therapy for speech/language challenges or motor skills. Diagnosing autism early is important, especially for children who need extra support.

If you suspect that your child may have autism or have noticed delays in your child’s developmental milestones, talk to your child’s provider about whether an autism evaluation would be appropriate. They will ask questions about your child’s behavior and can make a referral for a comprehensive autism evaluation, if needed. Waitlists for autism evaluations can be long, so it is important to address your concerns early.


  • The Arc, a national non-profit organization that provides information, support, and advocacy to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, including information about connecting with local community supports.
  • Autism Society of Minnesota
  • Autism Society of America
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Complete Guide to Understanding Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and Other ASDsby Chantal Sicile-Kira and Temple Grandin
  • CDC milestone tracker app to help parents track their child’s milestones. If you notice delays in your child’s milestones, talk to your child’s provider.

About the author

Allison Foy headshotAllison Foy is a pediatric neuropsychologist whose areas of expertise include autism spectrum disorder, genetic conditions (e.g, neurofibromatosis type 1), and other neurodevelopmental differences. Dr. Foy completed her doctoral training at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her clinical internship and postdoctoral specialization in neuropsychology at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Foy has published research in the area of autism and genetic conditions.