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Autism is a developmental disability that generally begins at birth or within the first three years of life. It is the result of a neurological disorder that changes the way the brain functions -- causing delays or problems in many different skills from infancy to adulthood. For example, both children and adults with autism usually exhibit difficulties in social interaction as well as in verbal and non-verbal communication. They also tend to be interested in repetitive or restricted activities. While the majority of autistic children look completely normal, they differ from other children by engaging in perplexing and distressing behaviors.


Why is Autism Called a Spectrum Disorder?

Autism belongs to a collection of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). A spectrum disorder is a group of disorders with similar features. While one person may have mild symptoms, another might have more severe ones. There are also differences in the nature of the symptoms themselves and when they are likely to first appear.

The three different types of autism spectrum disorders are:

  • Autistic disorder (also known as "classic" autism). This is the most common condition among the ASDs. It is marked by major delays in language, difficulties with social interactions, and unusual behaviors. Some people with autistic disorder also have impaired intellectual abilities.
  • Asperger syndrome. People with this syndrome display some of the milder symptoms of autistic disorder -- such as social challenges and unusual behaviors. They generally do not have any delays in language or impaired intellectual abilities.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PPD-NOS, also referred to as "atypical autism"). Individuals may be diagnosed with PPD-NOS if they meet some of the criteria for either autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome but not all. They typically have milder and fewer symptoms than those with autistic disorder. Symptoms may be limited to problems with language and social interaction.