An Introduction about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

What is ASD? 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. ASD is considered a "spectrum" disorder because symptoms can vary greatly in type and severity among those affected.


What are the symptoms and signs? 

The symptoms can vary widely from person to person, but they typically fall into three main categories:


  1. Social Communication Challenges: People with ASD may have difficulty with social interactions and communication. They may have trouble understanding nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language, have difficulty maintaining eye contact, and struggle to develop and maintain relationships.
  2. Repetitive Behaviors: Individuals with ASD often engage in repetitive behaviors or have specific interests. This can include repetitive body movements (e.g., rocking or hand-flapping), insistence on sameness or routines, and intense interests in specific topics.
  3. Communication Difficulties: Many people with ASD have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication. They may have delayed language development, speak in a flat or sing-song voice, or have trouble starting or maintaining conversations.


At what age can ASD be diagnosed?

There is widespread agreement among experts that autism can be reliably diagnosed by the age of 3 in most children. Some children may even show signs earlier, which can be picked up through screening tools that focus on early behaviors like differences in eye contact, joint attention, pointing, imitation, and play.


The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends developmental screening for all children at their 9-, 18-, and 24- or 30-month check-ups, with specific autism screenings at 18 and 24 months. 


What are the causes and risk factors of ASD?

There is not just one cause of ASD. There are many different factors that have been identified that may make a child more likely to have ASD, including environmental, biologic, and genetic factors.


While scientists are still trying to understand why some people develop autism and others don’t, risk factors may include:

  • A sibling with autism
  • Older parents
  • Certain genetic conditions
  • Very low birth weight


What treatment options are available for ASD?

Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and daily functioning. Early treatment for ASD is important as proper care and services can reduce individuals’ difficulties while helping them build on their strengths and learn new skills.


People with ASD may face a wide range of issues, which means that there is no single best treatment for ASD. Working closely with a health care provider is an important part of finding the right combination of treatment and services.


Behavioral, psychological, and educational interventions

People with ASD may be referred to a health care provider who specializes in providing behavioral, psychological, educational, or skill-building interventions. These programs are often highly structured and intensive, and they may involve caregivers, siblings, and other family members.


These programs may help people with ASD:

  • Learn social, communication, and language skills
  • Reduce behaviors that interfere with daily functioning
  • Increase or build upon strengths
  • Learn life skills for living independently



A health care provider may prescribe medication to treat specific symptoms. With medication, a person with ASD may have fewer problems with irritability, aggression, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity, attention problems, anxiety or depression .


Other resources

  • Contact your health care provider, local health department, school, or autism advocacy group to learn about special programs or local resources .
  • Find an autism support group. Sharing information and experiences can help people with ASD and their caregivers learn about treatment options and ASD-related programs.


UCSF clinical trials

Clinical trials are research studies that look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat diseases and conditions. Although individuals may benefit from being part of a clinical trial, participants should be aware that the primary purpose of a clinical trial is to gain new scientific knowledge so that others may be better helped in the future.


These are some clinical trials that are currently recruiting: 

  • Dkit/EF1 App study: This study is for children age 4-7 with neurodevelopmental delays. The purpose is to study whether a digital intervention on a mobile app called D-kit/EF1 can help improve mental skills and abilities. For more information please contact
  • ASD Speech Group: This study is currently recruiting children ages 8-16 to examine voice, speech and communication in children with autism and children with typical development. For more information please contact
  • DASCA study: The purpose is to validate a new measure of social communication that will be used to describe change in ability of children. Recruiting children ages 8 and under. For more information please contact