About Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorder

About Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a group of conditions in which the growth and development of the brain is affected. This can impact an individual’s language, emotions, behavior, self-control, learning and memory. Delays or deficits usually show up early in a child’s development, many times before the child enters elementary school, and can continue throughout the individual’s lifetime. They can be limited in nature, for instance affecting speech or learning only, or the deficits can be global and affect intelligence, learning, communication, social skills, behavior and daily functioning together. Examples of neurodevelopmental disorders include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), communication disorders, intellectual developmental disorder, motor disorders and specific learning disorders. It is not unusual for these disorders to occur together.

Talk to your child’s health care provider about any questions or concerns you have regarding your child’s development. The provider will help you to decide if further evaluation is needed and if so, where to go for these services.

About Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities. Symptoms are present early in development, often noticed within the first two years of life, and impact the individual’s social, occupational and/or other important areas of daily life.  Scientists do not know the exact causes of ASD, but research suggests that both genes and environment play important roles.

Prior to 2013, Autism fell under the classification of pervasive developmental disorder and was divided into five sub-categories: Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Rett's Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. With the most recent update of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the disorder was reclassified into a single diagnostic category of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This change was made based upon years of clinical practice and research and reflects the wide range of skills and symptoms demonstrated by individuals with autism.

Individuals diagnosed with ASD often have problems with social, emotional and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors and might not want change in their daily activities. Many people with ASD also have different ways of learning, paying attention or reacting to things. Children and adults with ASD might:

  • Not point at objects to show interest (for example, not point at an airplane flying over)
  • Not look at objects when another person points at them
  • Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Prefer not to be held or cuddled, or might cuddle only when they want to
  • Appear to be unaware when people talk to them, but respond to other sounds
  • Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk, play or relate to them
  • Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language
  • Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions
  • Not play pretend games (for example, not pretend to feed a doll)
  • Repeat actions over and over again
  • Have trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound
  • Lose skills they once had (for example, stop saying words they were using)
  • Have difficulty understanding subtleties in social communication, such as figurative speech or different types of humor, such as sarcasm
  • Have difficulty with perspective taking

It is important to keep in mind that symptoms of ASD can present very differently across individuals. Two children diagnosed with ASD may not show the exact same behaviors and signs. Variability in both symptoms and severity of symptoms is very common with this disorder

Learn the early signs

The following signs may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or after
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including echoing or repeating the speech of other people) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

If your child exhibits any of these signs, do not delay in talking to your child’s health care provider. Your child’s doctor will help you to decide if further evaluation is needed and if so, where to go for these services. Early identification and intervention are keys to reducing the symptoms of autism and improving long-term outcomes and quality of life.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012, October). Autism: caring for children with autism spectrum disorders: A resource toolkit for clinicians. Retrieved from http://www.aap.org/autism.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Autism Speaks. (2015). Learn the signs of autism. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/learn-signs.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, August). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html.

National Institute for Mental Health. (n.d.) Autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml.