Autism is a highly variable neurodevelopmental disorder, that first appears during infancy or childhood, and generally follows a steady course without remission. Overt symptoms gradually begin after the age of six months, become established by age two or three years, and tend to continue through adulthood, although often in more muted form. It is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: Impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behaviour. Other aspects, such as atypical eating, are also common but are not essential for diagnosis. Autism’s individual symptoms occur in the general population and appear not to associate highly, without a sharp line separating pathologically severe from common traits.
The unusual social development becomes apparent early in childhood. Autistic infants show less attention to social stimuli, smile and look at others less often, and respond less to their own name. Autistic toddlers differ more strikingly from social norms, for example, they have less eye-contact and turn taking, and do not have the ability to use simple movements to express themselves, such as the deficiency to point at things. Three- to five-year-old autistic children are less likely to exhibit social understanding, approach others spontaneously, imitate and respond to emotions, communicate nonverbally, and take turns with others. However, they do form attachments to their primary caregivers. Most autistic children display moderately less attachment securities than non-autistic children, although this difference disappears in children with higher mental development or less severe ASD. Older children and adults with ASD perform worse on tests of face and emotion recognition.
About a third to a half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. Differences in communication may be present from the first year of life, and may include delayed onset of babbling, unusual gestures, diminished responsiveness, and vocal patterns that are not synchronized with the caregiver. In the second and third years, autistic children have less frequent and less diverse babbling, consonants, words, and word combinations; their gestures are less often integrated with words. Autistic children are less likely to make requests or share experiences, and are more likely to simply repeat others’ words (echolalia) or reverse pronouns. Autistic children may have difficulty with imaginative play and with developing symbols into language.