Autism spectrum disorder causes differences in communication and behavior. Generally, about 1 to 2% of the population is autistic.

If you’re autistic, you’ll tend to have specific patterns of communication and behavior that may be different from those of nonautistic people.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts the structure and functioning of the brain. Neurodevelopmental conditions can affect:

  • how you behave
  • what you can remember
  • how you communicate
  • how you learn

Since autism doesn’t “look” a certain way, it’s not really possible to tell if someone is autistic at first glance. And because autism involves certain communication patterns that can affect social interaction, some autistic people may have difficulty following neurotypical social expectations.

Some autistic people are independent and need little support. Others may need a more involved level of support to manage day-to-day.

The word “autism” comes from the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.”

In the past, autism was seen as a form of schizophrenia. In fact, the word “autism” described what happens when someone with schizophrenia becomes focused on their own world instead of the world around them.

Psychiatrist Leo Kanner identified autism as a separate condition from schizophrenia in 1943.

Autistic people may have some different perspectives from nonautistic people, and this can include unique strengths. Many notable autistic people have chosen to share this part of their identity with the public, including:

  • actor Sir Anthony Hopkins
  • artist govy
  • attorney Lydia X. Z. Brown
  • architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire
  • scientist Temple Grandin
  • environmental activist Greta Thunberg
  • activist and author Kevin Healey

Of course, being in the public sphere isn’t the only measure of success. Every autistic person is unique, and there are a variety of ways to live a fulfilling life.

Over the years, the number of autism diagnoses among children in the United States has increased. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • 1 in 150 children received an autism diagnosis in 2000.
  • 1 in 68 children received an autism diagnosis in 2010.
  • 1 in 54 children may receive an autism diagnosis currently.

It’s estimated that over 5 million adults may be living with an autism diagnosis today.

Gender and autism diagnosis

Autism is four times more likely to be diagnosed in boys than in girls.

Some think it’s because autism is more likely to be overlooked in girls due to differences in how it presents. And some research suggests that girls are more likely to mask autism-related differences than boys.

Ethnicity and autism diagnosis

Autistic people exist in all ethnic groups. But there are still some differences in how many are diagnosed and when.

According to data from the CDC, a smaller percentage of Hispanic children are diagnosed with autism, compared to white and Black children.

And both Hispanic and Black children are typically evaluated and diagnosed later than white children.

Research suggests that racial inequities in diagnosis and access to care, as well as stereotypes, may impact health outcomes for autistic people who are diagnosed later.

Research also suggests that sticking to evidence-based practices in autism screening and promoting diversity among healthcare workers could help reduce the racial bias that can act as a barrier to diagnosis.

Misconceptions about autism still exist, and these myths can create challenges for autistic people personally and professionally.

Some common myths about autism include the following.

Myth 1: ‘Autistic people either can’t speak, or they’re a savant.’

In reality, autism is a spectrum. Some autistic people have more significant support needs than others, and many autistic people have “average” intelligence.

Myth 2: ‘The best jobs for autistic people are ones with repetitive tasks.’

A job with repetitive tasks may not be a good fit for an autistic person. Whether a job is a good fit may depend more on your interests and goals. Like everyone else, autistic people have different strengths, talents, and skills.

Myth 3: ‘Autistic people don’t want or have friends.’

Autism can make socializing difficult for some, but it doesn’t mean autistic people can’t form relationships with others. Many autistic people have great relationships with their friends and loved ones.

Myth 4: ‘Vaccines cause autism.’

According to the CDC and multiple studies, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism.

People are born with autism. Sometimes it takes a while for parents or healthcare professionals to notice the social and behavioral signs.

For many children, this happens around age 2, but it’s possible for autism to go undiagnosed even into adulthood.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), signs of autism are placed into two groups: communication and behavioral patterns.

Communication patterns

  • difficulty engaging with parents or other attachment figures
  • preference for playing alone
  • differences in speech patterns (such as flat or singsong speech)
  • difficulty speaking and/or understanding language
  • trouble reading social cues
  • less eye contact
  • difficulty making friends or initiating social interaction
  • difficulty picking up on the flow of a conversation

Behavioral patterns

  • repeats certain actions over and over
  • sticks to set rituals, habits, or routines (and feels stressed when the routine changes)
  • repeats certain words or phrases
  • focuses on certain details, or hyperfocus on a specific topic or object
  • in children, play that seems very structured (such as lining toys up rather than playing an imaginary game)

Many autistic people also show differences in sensory processing. This can look like:

  • strong reactions to sounds, lights, textures, or smells
  • feeling or appearing overwhelmed by too many sensations
  • discomfort when there isn’t enough sensory input

Until 2013, there were several different types of autism. Children were diagnosed with either:

  • autism
  • Asperger’s disorder
  • childhood disintegrative disorder
  • pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified

But in 2013, those categories changed. According to the DSM-5, all of those separate conditions are considered to be on the autism spectrum. The level of autism is based on a range of patterns.

When a child receives an autism diagnosis, their level of autism is identified by how much support they need:

  • Level 1: Requiring support
  • Level 2: Requiring substantial support
  • Level 3: Requiring very substantial support

If a child only shows certain social behaviors, they may be diagnosed with:

  • social communication disorder
  • anxiety
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

And in other cases, a child may be diagnosed with an intellectual developmental disorder instead. The DSM-5 states that autism shouldn’t be diagnosed in cases when intellectual development disorder is a better fit.

Autistic people often have a secondary medical or mental health condition. These are called co-occurring conditions, and they can impact day-to-day life in a big way.

For instance, one study estimated that of autistic people:

  • 28% may live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • 20% may live with an anxiety disorder
  • 13% may have a sleep-wake disorder
  • 12% may live with an impulse control or conduct disorder
  • 11% may live with a depressive disorder
  • 9% may live with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • 5% experience bipolar disorder
  • 4% have a schizophrenia spectrum disorder

Co-occurring conditions are generally thought to be more common in autistic people than in the general population.

We still don’t know exactly what causes autism, although research suggests it involves:

  • genetic factors
  • environmental factors
  • biology and brain differences

We do know that some things could increase the chance of being autistic. And some indicators can mean that someone has a higher likelihood of being autistic, as well.

Some of these factors can involve:

Family history

You might be more likely to have an autism diagnosis if:

  • you have an autistic sibling
  • you have a parent who is 35 years of age or older when the child is born
  • one of your parents is a college graduate


Research also suggests that some pregnancy-related factors could be connected to autism, including if the pregnant parent:

  • took certain medications, such as valproic acid and thalidomide
  • had hypertension or diabetes
  • experienced an antepartum hemorrhage in the third trimester or postpartum hemorrhage
  • had preeclampsia

You might also have higher chances of developing autism if as a baby, you were:

  • delivered by cesarean delivery, commonly referred to as a C-section
  • less than 36 weeks old when born
  • in fetal distress
  • born breech


Some biological factors can also increase your chances of being autistic, including:

  • certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as fragile X syndrome or tuberous sclerosis
  • being male
  • having a brain anomaly

Research strongly demonstrates that there is no link between a child getting their vaccines and developing autism.

For autistic people seeking support, there are plenty of options. Research has shown that some forms of therapy can help people gain skills to manage challenges associated with their communication and behavior patterns.

In many cases, these forms of therapy can provide support starting in childhood.

Some of these therapies include:

  • Occupational therapy (OT). This form of therapy teaches children skills to do the activities — or “occupations” — of daily life.
  • Speech or physical therapy. This helps some autistic children gain speech or coordination skills.
  • Social stories. Stories, written from the child’s point of view, are read to help a child know what to expect in a social situation.

Autistic children in the United States could also be eligible for some of the following services through their school, according to a U.S. federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • medical evaluations
  • psychological services
  • speech therapy
  • physical therapy
  • parent counseling and training
  • assisted technology devices
  • other specialized services

Your school district may provide some of these resources if a child needs more support in their school setting. In addition, some parents can receive free parent training under IDEA.

Caring for an autistic person with substantial support needs can cause stress for parents or siblings long-term. Still, with the right support for everyone, there are lots of ways to manage.


Some siblings might feel as if they don’t get enough attention, especially when parents are feeling overwhelmed.

One of many solutions for stressed families are support groups, which are often available through local, state, and national organizations.


Autistic children may feel like it’s harder to make friends or feel like they’re part of their peer group, especially if they don’t have any autistic friends.

Some children qualify for extra assistance in the classroom. Others may prefer smaller classrooms or classes with peers who have similar needs.


When an autistic child enters adulthood, they may “age out” of certain support programs.

IDEA requires school districts to begin preparing autistic teens for adulthood no later than the age of 16. These plans might include setting goals for:

  • post-secondary education
  • vocational training
  • independent living

Some autistic adults may also work with coaches who can help them:

  • develop interview skills
  • find the right job
  • learn what support options are available to them in the workplace

Some autistic people experience challenges as they navigate adulthood. According to the CDC, many autistic adults:

  • are often unemployed or under-employed
  • don’t continue their education after high school
  • continue to live with family members or relatives
  • have a harder time forging relationships with others

For autistic adults who cannot work and need more support, they may participate in a day habilitation program. These programs include activities like games and crafts, workshops, and supervised time in the community.

Many autistic adults are able to work and live on their own without frequent support, as well.

According to the CDC, autistic children and teens generally have about four to six times more medical expenses than nonautistic children.

Overall, the annual cost for autistic adults in the United States is $175 billion. The money to care for an autistic adult comes from:

  • 79% provided through government services
  • 12% earned by the autistic adult if they work
  • 9% accounted for with the caregiver’s time

Throughout the course of their life, an autistic person’s services and medical care costs range from $1.4 million to $2.4 million. Still, these costs can vary widely and depend on the person’s level of support needs.

In recent years, autism diagnoses seem to be on the rise. This may be partly due to a better understanding of autism among healthcare professionals.

For autistic people seeking support, there are a variety of services and therapies available through the government at a free or reduced cost. You can also learn more about some support options here.

While the support you receive may depend on your personal needs, there are many ways to connect with help if you need it.