Autism Primer:

Definition Of Autism

Autism is a developmental disorder which usually becomes evident before the age of three years. It is a neurological or brain disorder in which behavior, communication, and social interactions are the primary disabilities.


The rate of incidence, or how often autism occurs in children, ranges from five to fifteen out of 10,000 births. The different estimates are based on slightly different definitions of autism. It is three times more common in boys than girls and is rarely found in more than one child in a family.

Autism can be caused by a number of factors, but the cause in the vast majority is not known. It is known that autism is caused by biological, not psychological, factors.


Some babies show signs of autism from infancy. They may not like to cuddle and may show little interest in their families.

Typical characteristics of autism are often described as:

It should be noted that any one of these characteristics may occur in children with other disabilities. In these cases the term "autistic-like" behavior is used.

Educational Implications

Early diagnosis and educational evaluation of autism are very important, although help given at any age can make a significant difference.

Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly the Education of the Handicapped Act, now includes autism as a separate disability category. Children with autism will be eligible for special education and related services under this new category.

Until recently, children with autism have been eligible for special education and related services under the category of "other health impaired." The regulations (CFR 300.5) to the Education of the Handicapped Act state, "Other health impaired means (i) having an autistic condition which is manifested by severe communication and other developmental and educational problems...". These regulations will be changed to reflect autism as a category included under the IDEA.

Emphasis in education needs to be on helping the child to learn ways to communicate and on structuring the environment so that it is consistent and predictable. Effective teaching includes attention to behavior plans, positive behavior management, and clear expectations and rules.

Many of these methods can be developed in conjunction with parents and followed through at home. Continuity and consistency between home and school environments can greatly aid in the security and progress of persons with autism.

While autism is a lifetime condition, with special training, supervision, and support, many adults with autism can live and work in the community.


Autism Research International Newsletter
Institute for Child Behavior Research
4182 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
Plenum Publishing Corporation
233 Spring Street
New York, NY 10013

Park, Clara. (1982). The Siege. Boston; Little, Brown and Company.

Powers, Michael D. (Ed.). (1989). Children with Autism, A Parent's Guide. Rockville, MD; Woodbine House.

Wing, L., M.D., (1980). Autistic Children: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press.


Autism Hotline
Autism Services Center
101 Richmond Street
Huntington, WV 25702
(304) 523-8269

Autism Society of America
8601 Georgia Avenue
Suite 503
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301) 565-0433

Institute for Child Behavior Research
4182 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
(618) 281-7165

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013
(703) 893-6061 (Local)
(703) 893-8614 (TT)
1-800-999-5599 (Toll-free)

This fact sheet was developed by Interstate Research Associates, Inc. pursuant to Cooperative Agreement #H030A00002 with the Office of Special Education Programs. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U. S. Government.

This information is in the public domain unless otherwise indicated. Readers are encouraged to copy and share it, but please credit the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY).

Home WebDex: