What You Need to Know About the Autism Spectrum

Often misunderstood, autism spectrum disorder encompasses a wide range of behaviors and personalities—it can also give a person some unique strengths. Here’s what it really means to have autism.

Imagine that you’re walking down the street when you pass a kid you recognize from school. You smile and say hi, but your classmate doesn’t make eye contact with you or even acknowledge your greeting. It’s natural to think they are being rude, but before you jump to conclusions here’s something else to consider – perhaps they are on the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorder can have both social challenges and unique strengths learn more about it in this guide.

What Is Autism?

Autism—also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—is a condition that influences how people act and communicate with others. It affects about 1 in 59 people under age 21 in the United States. Like the hypothetical boy on the street, someone with ASD may not look at people when being spoken to or have difficulty understanding another person’s point of view.

Autism is called a spectrum disorder because it covers a wide range of symptoms and related behaviors. Each person with autism has their own set of challenges and strengths. “Autism looks really different in different people,” says Cynthia Anderson, Ph.D., the director of the National Autism Center at May Institute. “Some people with autism just feel or act a little awkward in how they get along with others, while other people may not even be able to communicate the most basic things, such as wanting something to eat or drink.”

What Causes Autism?

Experts still are stumped by the origins of this disorder. The cause of autism is unknown, but it’s likely that both a person’s genetics and environment play a role. What we do know is that certain factors can increase the probability of autism, including:

  • Having a sister or brother with autism
  • Being born to older parents
  • Being born at a low birth weight
  • Having specific genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome or Rett syndrome

What Is It Like to Have Autism?

Each person’s experience with autism is completely unique, but those with the disorder often have some pretty amazing strengths. For example, people with ASD can be musically gifted or excel in math and science. They may also be able to learn things in extraordinary detail and recall that information long after they’ve learned it.

It’s also typical for people with autism to develop intense interests—such as in trains or numbers. In fact, they can be so preoccupied with the topic that it becomes all they want to talk about.

Despite these strengths, normal day-to-day life can be challenging for someone with autism. “If you’ve ever been in a situation where you weren’t sure what to do or say, or you didn’t know what was expected of you, I bet you acted differently than your ‘normal self,’” says Anderson. “That might be what it is like to have autism—that feeling of trying to understand how and why people do what they do and why the world runs like it does.”

A few of the challenges that some (but not all) people with autism face include:

  • Sensory overload Common sounds and objects—loud street music or bright fluorescent store lighting—can overwhelm the senses of someone with autism. The stressful experience may even cause physical pain, leading to a meltdown. Imagine if you walked into a room and the lights were so bright that they hurt your eyes—you’d be upset, too!
  • Communication challenges People with autism often take things literally, says Jan Blacher, Ph.D., the director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center. Someone with ASD may not understand that phrases such as “that’s sick!” or “I’m dying with laughter” are actually good things. “If your friend isn’t understanding what you are trying to say, stop being subtle and say directly what you want,” says Anderson. “It might feel weird to you, but it will probably help.”
  • Trouble interpreting emotions If you look at someone’s face, you can usually tell if that person is happy or sad, but that’s not always the case for someone with ASD. They can have trouble figuring out how others feel, and may not be able to pick up on the subtle body language cues. “That meaningful glance you give a friend might not mean anything to someone with autism,” explains Anderson.

How Can I Help Someone with Autism?

Say hello! “Don’t shy away if an individual on the autism spectrum responds without eye contact, or with minimal words, or seems shy,” says Karen Barbi, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and clinical director at the Autism Center for Treatment. “Adolescents on the autism spectrum don’t necessarily want to avoid social relationships and they do want friendships.”

To get a conversation going, you could ask that person what their favorite hobby is and talk about that, or invite them to join you in an activity, like watching a movie or going to a sports game. Don’t take it personally if they don’t seem interested—simply try asking again another day!

Special thanks to our experts:

Cynthia M. Anderson, Ph.D., director, National Autism Center, May Institute; Karen Barbi, Psy.D., licensed psychologist and clinical director, Autism Center for Treatment; Jan Blacher, Ph.D., director, SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center

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