What is Autism?

Autism is often called autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, because people with autism have a range, or spectrum, of differences. Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference. It is caused by differences in the way the brain functions.

Autism is a feature of many genetic conditions and is not due to a single genetic condition. There are hundreds of known genetic causes of autism.

People with autism have symptoms in three areas: social communication, restricted and repetitive interests, and repetitive behaviors.

Some children may have symptoms in one of these areas but not all of them, and others may have very few symptoms overall. These children have “features of autism” but not the full diagnosis of autism.

It’s important to remember that:

  1. Not everyone with a genetic condition that Searchlight studies has a diagnosis of autism. In fact, most people with most of these conditions will not be diagnosed with autism. However, people with the genetic condition have had one or more of the behavioral features mentioned above and listed below.
  2. Even a person who does have autism is unlikely to exhibit all of the features. Every person is unique and cannot be defined by any single genetic difference. We are a combination of all of our genes.
  3. Most of these features are also found in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, as well as other diagnoses, not just people with autism.

People who have genetic changes like the ones we are studying may have one or more of the behavioral features listed below.


Social Communication

Social communication challenges in autism, or features of autism, include:

  • Does not respond to name by 12 months of age
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Does not share others’ interests
  • Only interacts to achieve a desired goal
  • Has flat or inappropriate facial expressions
  • Does not understand personal space boundaries
  • Avoids or resists physical contact
  • Cannot be comforted by others during distress
  • Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Has delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over
  • Reverses pronouns (for example, says “you” instead of “I”)
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions
  • Does not point or respond to pointing
  • Uses few or no gestures (for example, does not wave goodbye)
  • Talks in a flat, robot-like, or singsong voice
  • Does not pretend in play (for example, does not pretend to feed a doll)
  • Does not understand jokes, sarcasm, or teasing


Information obtained from www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html.


Restricted Interests and Behaviors

Restricted interests and behaviors related to autism, or features of autism, include:

  • Lines up toys or other objects
  • Plays with toys the same way every time
  • Likes specific parts of objects (or example, wheels)
  • Is very organized
  • Gets upset by minor changes
  • Has obsessive interests
  • Has to follow certain routines
  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins self in circles
  • Has sensory differences including oversensitivity or undersensitivity to stimuli like textures, smells, or sounds

Information obtained from www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html.


Other Symptoms

Some people with autism, or features of autism, have other symptoms. These might include:

  • Hyperactivity (very active)
  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
  • Short attention span
  • Aggression
  • Temper tantrums
  • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
  • Unusual mood or emotional reactions
  • Lack of fear or more fear than expected


Information obtained from www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html.

If you’d like to learn more about the features of autism and other research being done, visit SPARKforAutism.org.