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Children diagnosed with autistic disorder have difficulties with interaction and communication with others. They often repeat a particular behaviour over and over, or get fixated on objects. Many also have sensory issues.

Diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed according to a checklist in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, the DSM.

In the past, the DSM categorised children with ASD as having autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, also called Asperger’s syndrome, or PDD-NOS.

The most recent edition of the Manual, DSM-5, was published in 2013. It changed the criteria used to diagnose children with ASD. DSM-5 combines the three categories into one, which is just called autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

If your child already has a diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome or PDD-NOS you can keep using these terms if you want to.

The information in this article applies only to people who have been diagnosed using criteria in the fourth edition of the DSM, DSM-IV. If you’re worried your child might have ASD, talk to your child and family health nurse or GP.

Autistic disorder: common characteristics

Children with autistic disorder have difficulties relating to and communicating with other people.

When they’re babies, they don’t look at other people very much. By two years of age, they often don’t respond to their name or smile at others. They might not change their pitch when they’re babbling, so it doesn’t sound like a conversation. Also they don’t imitate others with behaviour like clapping or waving.

Children with autistic disorder often repeat a particular behaviour over and over, or get fixated on an object. For example, they might repeatedly turn lights on and off, or focus on the wheels of a toy car, rather than playing with the whole car and engaging in pretend play.

Many children with autistic disorder also have sensory issues, although this isn’t necessary for a diagnosis. They might:

  • be especially sensitive to sound, which is why they raise their hands to their ears to block out noise
  • like the feel of objects, and smell and sniff at everything around them
  • want to eat only foods with a certain texture – for example, they’ll be happy to eat soft, smooth food, but will refuse anything lumpy
  • use their peripheral vision a lot, or tilt their heads to look at objects from a particular angle.

Some children with autistic disorder have below-average intelligence. Others will have intelligence within the typical range – often called ‘high-functioning autism’.

Autistic disorder can also be present with other conditions and disorders, like epilepsy and Fragile X syndrome. This is called comorbidity.

Signs of autistic disorder: checklist

Social interactions
Children with autistic disorder might:

  • seem to be in their own world
  • not use eye contact very much – for example, during interaction or for drawing attention to something
  • not use gestures – for example, they might not lift their arms to be picked up
  • not share enjoyment or interests – for example, they might not point to an object or event to share it
  • not show emotion or empathy
  • not respond to their names
  • show no interest in other children or peers
  • not engage in pretend play – for example, they won’t feed a baby doll.

Children with autistic disorder might:

  • have little or no babble
  • have little or no spoken language
  • have ‘echolalia’, which means they echo or mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice
  • have difficulty understanding and following simple instructions – for example, ‘Give me the block’ might be difficult for them.

Repetitive or persistent behaviours
Children with autistic disorder might:

  • have intense interest in certain objects – they’ll get ‘stuck’ on one particular toy or object
  • focus narrowly on an object – for example, on a detail like opening and closing the door on a toy bus rather than pretending to drive it
  • insist on following routines and be easily upset by change
  • have repetitive body movements or unusual body movements – for example, back-arching, hand-flapping or walking on toes.

Sensory issues
Children with autistic disorder might:

  • be extremely sensitive to sensory experiences – for example, they might be easily upset by certain sounds, or eat only foods with a certain texture
  • seek sensory stimulation – for example, they might like deep pressure touch or vibrating objects like the washing machine.
If your child has a diagnosis of autistic disorder, you’ll probably know about finding early intervention and support services. Support for many children will come from the National Disability Insurance Scheme as it’s rolled out across Australia.
  • Last updated or reviewed 21-09-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Cheryl Dissanayake and Cherie Green, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University.