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what is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Autistic people may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of autistic people can range from gifted to seriously challenged. Some autistic people need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the medical diagnosis for autism.  Learn more about autism and how to support families concerned their young child may be autistic here.  

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Autism Overview 

Autism (Autism spectrum disorder; ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Scientists do not know yet exactly what causes these differences for most autistic people. However, some autistic people have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. There are multiple causes of autism, although most individuals do not know the cause of their specific characteristics.


Autism is characterized by social communication impairments, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, and/or sensory alterations. Because autism is a spectrum, it can range from very mild to very severe. Autism occurs in all ethnic, socioeconomic and age groups. Autism begins differently for different children. Some children develop differently starting in the first year of life but others appear neurotypical until 2-3 years of age. 


Learn how to identify the early signs of autism in the below video, created by Kennedy Krieger in partnership with the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. READ MORE

First Signs is dedicated to educating parents and professionals about autism and related disorders. With developmental, behavioral, and learning disabilities on the rise, there is much that remains poorly understood. However, there is one widely accepted fact: early and intensive intervention can have a profound impact on the quality of life for children at risk and their families. The key is early detection. But recognizing the early signs can be a challenge for parents and healthcare professionals alike. READ MORE

From birth to 5 years, your child should reach milestones in how he plays, learns, speaks, acts and moves. Track your child’s development and act early if you have a concern. READ MORE

What Are the Signs of Autism? Autism’s core signs are social communication challenges and restricted, repetitive behaviors. Signs of autism may: begin in early childhood (though they may go unrecognized), persist and interfere with daily living... READ MORE


The behaviors of autism spectrum disorder may be apparent in infancy, but they usually become clearer during early childhood. As part of a well-baby or well-child visit, your child’s doctor should perform a “developmental screening” and encourage you to ask specific questions about your child’s development progress... READ MORE



Social issues are one of the most common symptoms in all of the types of autism. Autistic people do not have just social “difficulties” like shyness. The social issues they have cause serious problems in everyday life. ​



Autistic people have different communication skills. Some people can speak well. Others can’t speak at all or only very little. Some autistic children do not talk at all but with high-quality support most autistic children can develop the ability to communicate. Some autistic children have their first words at 12 to 18 months of age and then lose them. Others might speak, but not until later in childhood. ​



Repetitive motor mannerisms like hand flapping, rocking, or spinning in circles often are a clear flag for autism in preschool aged children and older individuals.  However, more subtle cues are having interests that are unusually intense or atypical for that age group.  Some autistic people need things to happen in the same order every time.  Sensory interests or aversions (sound, touch, or visual interests) are characteristics of many autistic people.​


Autistic children develop at different rates in different areas. Some autistic people have an intellectual disability, but others can be intellectually gifted.  There may be delays in language, social, and learning skills, while their ability to walk and move around can be the same as other children their age. They might be very good at putting puzzles together or solving computer problems, but they might have trouble with social activities like talking or making friends. Autistic children might also learn a hard skill before they learn an easy one. Autistic strengths are beginning to be identified more regularly thanks to the neurodiversity movement.


Screening is the process of identifying characteristics that may indicate a child may meet criteria for an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, which is the term medical providers use when making a diagnosis.  Screening is usually carried out by people who are not specialists in autism such as pediatricians.  Diagnosis is the process of formally evaluating a child and is carried out by developmental pediatricians, neurologists, pediatric neurologists, psychiatrists or psychologists in the state of Washington.  Screening and diagnosis of autism typically involve interviews with caregivers, standardized assessments, and direct evaluation of the child.  Here is a general overview of the process: 


Developmental Screening: A common screening tool for children ages 18-30 months is the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-Chat) see M-Chat.  This is often administered during well-child visits to identify early signs of ASD and assess social communication skills, repetitive behaviors, and developmental milestones.   


Diagnostic Evaluation: If a child or individual shows potential signs of autism during screening or if caregiver or provider concerns are raised, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is conducted. This involves a thorough assessment of medical history, behavior, and development.  

This may include observing social interactions, communication abilities, behavior patterns, and sensory sensitivities.   


Diagnostic Criteria: The evaluation process follows established diagnostic criteria, typically those outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).  These criteria help professionals determine if an individual meets the necessary criteria for an ASD diagnosis. 


Parent and Caregiver Input: The input and observations of parents and primary caregivers are crucial in the diagnostic process. They provide valuable insights into individuals’ behavior, developmental history, and social interactions, aiding in forming an accurate diagnosis. 


Differential Diagnosis: Professionals consider other factors that may contribute to the individual’s characteristics, ruling out alternative explanations. It is essential to differentiate autism from other developmental disorders or medical conditions that may present similar characteristics. 


Diagnostic Report and Feedback: Based on the assessment outcomes, a diagnostic report is generated, detailing the findings and whether the individual meets the criteria for an ASD diagnosis.  Professionals may explain the results to the individual or their parents/caregivers, providing information, support, and guidance on intervention options. 

It is important to note that the process may vary slightly across different regions, and healthcare systems.  Seeking professional guidance is crucial for accurate screening and diagnosis of autism.


In the State of Washington, there is a list (by county) of Center of Excellence (COE) providers who may diagnose autism spectrum disorder.  Use this list to check for providers located in your county and if a referral from your PCP is needed.


Center of Excellence providers in Washington state: 


Autism is a spectrum that has many contributors, causes, manifestations, and there are different ways to support individuals in living their best lives. Researchers around the world, including those at the University of Washington, are working to understand the autism spectrum. Please click below to learn more about ongoing research projects and how to participate. If you know of other great research going on in Washington state, please contact us at so we can add these projects to this site.


My Next Steps

We want to help guide you along the right recommended pathway no matter what age your child is or where you are on your journey with ASD. Whether you are looking for a more structured list of where to start, or simply want to make sure you’re “checking the boxes” along the way, we are here for you. Learn more. 

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Screening & Diagnosis


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