Autism Spectrum Disorder FAQ

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that appears sometime during early childhood. Children with ASD vary greatly in their strengths, abilities, and needs. Students who are diagnosed with ASD share common impairments, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):

  • “Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts”
  • “Restricted, repeptetive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”

Although there is no definitive answer to what causes ASD, most experts in the medical and educational communities agree that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure and function. We do not know what causes the brain to develop abnormally, but we do know that there is a strong genetic link to ASD. That is families that have one child with ASD have an increased likelihood of having another child with ASD. We also know that ASD is five times more likely to occur in boys (1 in 54) than in girls (1 in 252), and that the overall occurrence of ASD has increased dramatically with the current prevalence being 1 in 88.

What do we know about interventions for students with ASD?

ASD is a lifelong disorder. Currently, there is no known cure. Intervention for ASD, however, can be extremely effective and many children diagnosed with ASD as very young children succeed in general education.

Based on the existing evidence on intervention, the National Research Council (2001) suggests that interventions for preschool children with ASD begin as early as possible, provide 25 hours a week of planned instructional time, use a curriculum that includes goals from across developmental domains, provide opportunities to interact with typically developing children, use positive behavior support to encourage and teach appropriate behaviors, and provide support and education to families.

What are evidence-based practices for young children with ASD?

The evidence is clear that there is not a single correct way to educating children with ASD. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), however, is one strategy that has been demonstrated to be effective in teaching children with ASD for over 40 years. ABA uses behavioral principles (e.g., positive reinforcement) to teach valued skills to students with ASD. ABA is an important component in a comprehensive early intervention/early childhood special education program for young children with ASD.

What types of settings are most appropriate for the education of young children with ASD?

When determining where young children with ASD should spend their time, it is important to remember that children with ASD are children first. Therefore, where you think typically developing toddlers and preschoolers should spend their time will influence where you think toddlers and preschoolers with ASD should spend their time. We do know that children with ASD will do better in a predictable environment with:

  • A low child-teacher ratio
  • A clear and consistent schedule
  • Caregivers who are responsive and positive

It is also important that young children with ASD have opportunities everyday to interact successfully with typically developing peers. These opportunities must be planned for and supported in order to make sure that they are fun and successful for both the children with ASD and the typically developing children.

Helpful Resources On the Web

Autism Society
Autism Speaks
Autism Society of Washington
Haring Center
Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children (TACSEI)
The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (NPDC)
Seattle Children’s Autism Center
UW Autism Center
FEAT of Washington

Other Helpful Resources:

  • Chawarska, K., Klin, A., Volkmar, F. (2008). Autism Spectrum Disorders in Infants and Toddlers. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • National Research Council (2001). Educating Children with Autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Wiseman, N. (2009). The First Year: Autism Spectrum Disorders. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.