What does autism look like?


In this article: 

  • Autism diagnoses are increasing: In 2020, 1 in 36 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

  • The signs of autism can be quite different for younger children versus older children. 

  • The Providence Boyden Family Autism Center provides both diagnosis and intensive treatment for children who may have autism spectrum disorder. 

Parenting is one of the world’s most difficult jobs. You want to do what’s best for your child, and you strive to make each decision based on their individual needs. You try not to compare your child to other children — but sometimes, it’s hard not to notice when your little one acts differently than others their age.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 36 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2020. That number increased from 1 in 44 children in 2018, showing that more children are receiving an autism diagnosis. But it is a spectrum, which means the symptoms one child experiences could be different from another’s. 

So, how can you know whether your child has autism — and what you should do about it? Here’s an overview of the disorder. 

Signs of autism spectrum disorder 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of disorders that cause difficulties with communication and social, verbal and motor skills. Because it is a spectrum, each person with autism has different strengths and challenges. While some people could need daily support in their lives, others may be able to function with very minimal outside assistance (known as high-functioning autism). 

Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3 and could include: 

  • Delays in speech and other developmental milestones 
  • Responding to a question by repeating it, rather than answering it 
  • Loss of previously acquired speech 
  • Avoiding eye contact 
  • Not responding to their name 
  • Preferring not to be touched, held or cuddled 
  • Not showing facial expressions or emotions such as happy, sad or upset 
  • Lining up toys  
  • Banging their head or having tantrums 
  • Not engaging in pretend play 
  • Having a peculiar attachment to inanimate objects 

In older children, signs could be more nuanced: 

  • Finding it hard to say how they feel 
  • Having an almost obsessive interest in certain activities 
  • Getting very upset when their daily routine is disrupted 
  • Taking idioms such as “break a leg” very seriously 
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviors 
  • Getting upset if you ask them to do something 
  • Finding it hard to make friends 

Diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) 

If you wonder whether your child might have ASD, a good first step could be to take a brief online questionnaire, such as that offered by the organization Autism Speaks. But ultimately, you will need to take your child to a professional. You can request a screening at any time from your doctor or your state’s early intervention program.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children get screened for autism in early childhood, preferably around their 18 to 24-month exams. Screening, however, does not lead directly to a diagnosis of autism. Rather, it lets caregivers know if they should order a formal evaluation. This evaluation can be performed by a psychologist, developmental pediatrician, speech-language pathologist or other specialist. They may observe your child, give them a structured test, ask the parents or caregivers questions or all the above. 

According to the CDC, a diagnosis of ASD now includes several conditions that used to be diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger syndrome. 

Care for children with autism at Providence 

It may give you some relief to have a definitive diagnosis for your child’s condition, but that doesn’t make the path forward any easier. The biggest question many parents have immediately following an ASD diagnosis is, “What now?” 

The Providence Boyden Family Autism Center, located at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, offers both diagnostic services and applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. We provide diagnostic assessments for children as young as 18 months, and we will give you feedback about your child the day of the evaluation.  

We offer two main routes for treatment: 

  • The Intensive Day Treatment Program (IDTP) is a 12-week program designed for young children between ages 2 and 5. Children receive three hours of therapy for four days each week. The therapy helps them improve their communication skills and social interaction through play-based teaching strategies.   
  • Graduates of the IDTP can participate in the Bridging Program, which focuses on individual therapy for up to one year after the IDTP. Therapy rooms are designed as “centers,” throughout which the children rotate during their session, giving them the opportunity to interact with other children. We also provide additional support and care coordination services to help our families.  

Not only will your child be learning in our therapy programs, but you as the caregiver will also find the education and support you need. 

It’s certainly not easy to parent a child who has autism. But when you have the right resources and providers who care about your child as much as you do, it can be much easier to handle.  


Find a doctor 

If you want to learn more about the resources Providence provides for families of children with autism, contact the Providence Boyden Family Autism Center. You can also find a provider using our provider directory

Download the Providence App 

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app

Related resources 

Where to treat common summertime illnesses and injuries 

Wellness visits for children 

Study on brain health 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions. 

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