Autism Awareness Month

Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) are developmental disabilities that share many of the same characteristics. Usually evident by age three, autism and PDD-NOS are neurological disorders that affect a child’s ability to communicate, understand language, play, and relate to others. In the diagnostic manual used to classify disabilities, the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), “autistic disorder” is listed as a category under the heading of “Pervasive Developmental Disorders.”

A diagnosis of autistic disorder is made when an individual displays 6 or more of 12 symptoms listed across three major areas: social interaction, communication, and behavior. When children display similar behaviors but do not meet the criteria for autistic disorder, they may receive a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder NOS (PDD not otherwise specified).

Although the diagnosis is technically referred to as PDD-NOS, throughout the remainder of this fact sheet we will refer to the diagnosis as PDD, as it is more commonly known. Autistic disorder is one of the disabilities specifically defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal legislation under which children and youth with disabilities receive special education and related services. IDEA, which uses the term “autism,” defines the disorder as “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, usually evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Other characteristics associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.” (In keeping with the IDEA and the way in which this disorder is generally referred to in the field, we will use the term autism throughout the remainder of this fact sheet.) Due to the similarity of behaviors associated with autism and PDD, use of the term pervasive developmental disorder has caused some confusion among parents and professionals. However, the treatment and educational needs are similar for both diagnoses.


The newest report by the CDC finds that 1 out of every 250 children have autism. These disorders are four times more common in boys than girls. The causes of autism and PDD are unknown. Currently, researchers are investigating areas such as neurological damage and biochemical imbalance in the brain. These disorders are not caused by psychological factors.



Some or all of the following characteristics may be observed in mind to severe forms:

-Communication problems (e.g., using and understanding language
-Difficulty in relating to people, objects, and events
-Unusual play with toys and other objects
-Difficulty with changes in routine or familiar surroundings
-Repetitive body movements or behavior patterns.

Children with autism or PDD vary widely in abilities, intelligence, and behaviors. Some children do not speak; others have limited language that often includes repeated phrases or conversations. People with more advanced language skills tend to use a small range of topics and have difficulty with abstract concepts. Repetitive play skills, a limited range of interests, and impaired social skills are generally evident as well. Unusual responses to sensory information — for example, loud noises, lights, certain textures of food or fabrics — are also common.


Autism Checklist and Early Warning Signs

Individuals with autism usually exhibit at least half of the traits listed below. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and vary in intensity from symptom to symptom. In addition, the behavior usually occurs across many different situations and is consistently inappropriate for their age.


Check List

Difficulty in mixing with other children
Insistence on sameness; resists changes in routine
Inappropriate laughing and giggling
No real fear of dangers
Little or no eye contact
Sustained odd play
Apparent insensitivity to pain
Echolalia (repeating words or phrases in place of normal language)
Prefers to be alone; aloof manner
May not want cuddling or act cuddly
Spins objects
Not responsive to verbal cues; acts as though deaf
Inappropriate attachment to objects
Difficulty in expressing needs; uses gestures or pointing instead of words
Noticeable physical overactivity or extreme underactivity
Tantrums – displays extreme distress for no apparent reason
Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
Uneven gross/fine motor skills. (May not want to kick ball but can stack blocks.)

Early Warning Signs

If your child displays any of these signs, bring it to the attention of your doctor:

No babbling by 12 months.
No pointing, waving and other gesturing by 12 months.
No single words by 16 months.
No two-word spontaneous (not echoed) phrases by 24 months.
Any loss of language or social skills.
Inability to make or hold eye contact.
Inability to respond to the child’s name being called.
Inability to look where you point.
Lack of interest in pretend play.


Educational Implications

Early diagnosis and appropriate educational programs are very important to children with autism or PDD. Public Law 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly the Education of the Handicapped Act, includes autism as a disability category. From the age of three, children with autism and PDD are eligible for an educational program appropriate to their individual needs. Educational programs for students with autism or PDD focus on improving communication, social, academic, behavioral, and daily living skills.

Behavior and communication problems that interfere with learning sometimes require the assistance of a knowledgeable professional in the autism field who develops and helps to implement a plan which can be carried out at home and school. The classroom environment should be structured so that the program is consistent and predictable. Students with autism or PDD learn better and are less confused when information is presented visually as well as verbally.

Interaction with nondisabled peers is also important, for these students provide models of appropriate language, social, and behavior skills. To overcome frequent problems in generalizing skills learned at school, it is very important to develop programs with parents, so that learning activities, experiences, and approaches can be carried over into the home and community. With educational programs designed to meet a student’s individual needs and specialized adult support services in employment and living arrangements, children and adults with autism or PDD can live and work in the community.


Dillon, K.M. (1995). Living with autism: The parents’ stories. Boone, NC: Parkway. (Available from Parkway Publishers, Box 3678, Boone, NC 28607.)

Harris, S. (1994). Siblings of children with autism: A guide for families. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House. (Telephone: 1-800-843-7323; (301) 897-3570.)

Hart, C.A. (1993). A parent’s guide to autism: Answers to the most common questions. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster. (Telephone: 1-800-223-2336.)

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. (Available from Plenum Publishing Corporation, 233 Spring Street, New York, NY 10013. Telephone: 1-800-221-9369.)

Maurice, C., Green, G., & Luce, S.C. (Eds.). Behavioral intervention for young children with autism: A manual for parents and professionals. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community (COSAC). (1994, December). National directory of programs serving individuals with autism and related pervasive developmental disorders. Ewing, NJ: Author. (Available from COSAC, 1450 Parkside Avenue, Suite 22, Ewing, NJ 08638. Telephone: (609) 883-8100.)

Powers, M.D. (Ed.). (1989). Children with autism, a parent’s guide. Rockville, MD; Woodbine House. (Telephone: 1-800-843-7323; (301) 897-3570.)

Schopler, E., & Mesibov, G.B. (Eds.). Several books are available in the “Current Issues in Autism” book series: Communication problems in autism (1985); Social behavior in autism (1986); Autism in adolescents and adults (1983); Effects of autism on the family (1984); High-functioning individuals with autism (1990); Preschool issues in autism (1993); and Learning and cognition in autism (1995). (All available from Plenum Publishing at the address above. Telephone: 1-800-221-9369.)


Autism Hotline
Autism Services Center
P.O. Box 507
Huntington, WV 25710-0507
(304) 525-8014

Autism Society of America
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 650
Bethesda, MD 20814
Telephone: (301) 657-0881
For information and referral, call 1-800-328-8476.

Autism National Committee
249 Hampshire Drive
Plainsboro, NJ 08536

Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities Indiana Resource Center for Autism
Indiana University
2853 East 10th Street
Bloomington, IN 47408-2601
(812) 855-6508

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