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What is ASD?


Is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Although ASD can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a developmental disorder because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association used to diagnose mental disorders, those diagnosed with ASD have difficulty with communication and interaction with other people, restricted interests and repetitive behaviours, and other symptoms that make it challenging to function properly in school, at work, and in daily living.

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. ASD occurs in all ethnic, racial, and economic groups.

Signs and symptoms of ASD

Those diagnosed with ASD have difficulty with social communication and interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. The list below gives some examples of the types of behaviors that are seen in those diagnosed with ASD. While not everyone with ASD will show all behaviors, most will show several.

Social communication / interaction behaviors may include:

  • Making little or inconsistent eye contact
  • Tending not to look at or listen to people
  • Rarely sharing enjoyment of objects or activities by pointing or showing things to others
  • Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or to other verbal attempts to gain attention
  • Having difficulties with back and forth of conversation
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond
  • Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said
  • Having an unusual tone of voice that may have an irregular pitch, or come across flat and robot-like
  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions

Restrictive / repetitive behaviors may include:

  • Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors. For example, repeating words or phrases, a behavior called echolalia
  • Having a lasting intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Getting upset by slight changes in a routine
  • Being more or less sensitive than other people to sensory input, such as light, noise, clothing, or temperature

Other traits

Including the traits identified above, those diagnosed with ASD may experience excessive anxiety associated with everyday events. Many are hypersensitive to environmental stimuli, such as noise, harsh lighting, and crowds.

They may exhibit rigid, inflexible, rule-bound behaviour, and can experience profound anxiety in response to unfamiliar settings, unclear expectations, and (seemingly minor) changes. Other observed areas of difficulty include time management and organization, concentration, fine motor skills (messy, effortful handwriting), and processing speed.

Students with ASD often struggle to participate in class discussions, presentations, and group work. Grades may suffer because they do not intuitively grasp “the hidden curriculum” like their peers. Adults with ASD may find it difficult to find and keep employment.

ASD traits can also make it challenging for those with a diagnosis to establish and maintain friendships. Some may speak in a monotone voice with limited eye contact and avoid social interactions. Such individuals may be perceived as aloof, uninterested “loners”. Others speak too loudly and out of context, with intense eye contact and a propensity to talk extensively about their own interests, giving the impression that they are insensitive and self-centered.

They may be unaware of “unwritten” social rules (e.g. personal space) or interpret language in a very literal way that makes it difficult to detect sarcasm or read between the lines. Most have trouble with making small talk, and find it challenging to interpret and express non-verbal social cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures.

Despite the challenges described above, those with ASD typically have many strengths.

Many individuals with ASD exhibit extensive knowledge of a specific interest and therefore are capable of major accomplishments.

Usually highly articulate, in speech and in writing.

Attentive to detail, with strengths in rote memory and a systematic, logical approach to problem solving.

Often able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time.

May have intense interests around a general theme (for example, mechanics or history) with more specific, related interests having varied since childhood, which can be highly motivating if they are in a related program.

Likely to be straightforward, loyal and honest.

Strong visual and auditory learners, and often excel in math, science, music, or art.

Where Does Asperger’s Syndrome fit in with ASD?

Asperger Syndrome was named after the Vienna-based pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who, in 1944, studied and wrote about children in his practice who demonstrated the cluster of characteristics that are prevalent in those diagnosed today with Level 1 ASD. Asperger Syndrome was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (American Psychiatric Association) under the general category of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs) in 1994.

Level 1 ASD

While still used by many individuals who received a diagnosis prior to 2013, the term Asperger’s Syndrome no longer appears in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and falls under the broad category of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Those diagnosed in the past with Asperger’s Syndrome are now identified as having Level 1 ASD (requiring minimal support).

1 in 66

Children and youth


It is thought that as many as 1 in 66 children and youth in Canada have some form of an ASD.

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