Introduction to Autism

Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Autism spectrum disorder affects individuals differently, with each person having unique strengths and support needs. Individuals with autism may have social communication and behavioural challenges, and may experience various environments and situations as difficult.

Autism spectrum disorder, the name adopted in 2013, is a developmental disorder characterized by persistent problems in social communication and interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities.1 It replaces the older terms of autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome and other conditions envisioned on "the great continuum" of autism.2 Still, the defining features of the condition commonly referred to as "autism" remain essentially the same.

But what does autism look like? As you observe a person's behavior, what might make you suspect he or she could have autism? To explore this question, we return to the very first written account of autism.


It is likely that autism has existed through the ages, but the first ever clinical account of the disorder was published by Dr. Leo Kanner in 1943.3 Dr. Kanner, who developed the first child psychiatric service at a U.S. hospital, described a group of 11 children – eight boys and three girls – who had "autistic disturbances of affective contact."4

Dr. Kanner based his report on direct observation, and much of what he set down has stood the test of time. He vividly depicted the essential features of autism, all of which are echoed in current-day diagnostic manuals. It is interesting to note that, just as in Kanner's study, the rate of autism in males continues to be much higher than the rate in females.
Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, was working at nearly the same time as Kanner with a similar group of children on the other side of the Atlantic. A milder form of autism, Asperger syndrome, was named after him.


As the word "spectrum" suggests, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have challenges that run the gamut from mild to severe, with different levels of ability and disability. Someone may have no functional speech, or may have a rich vocabulary. He or she may be intellectually disabled or have an average or above average IQ. He or she may be socially withdrawn or may be socially active. She or he may be fixated on lining up toys in a certain order, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of animals or another favorite topic.


When a child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, families face the next challenge: choosing the right treatments and therapies for their child. What are these treatments and therapies? How much do we know about them? How can a family best evaluate whether a treatment is working for their child?

We will be developing an Autism Treatments section, where we explore current autism treatments, the evidence behind them, and what we are learning from the experience of individuals and families who have tried them.


Since the 1940s, when Drs. Kanner and Asperger were putting their remarkable insights regarding socially different children on paper, we have learned a great deal. As you peruse this website over time as well as other sources of information on autism, you will see how much has been discovered about autism spectrum disorder from research in a wide variety of fields, including genetics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology.

What will also become evident is how many questions remain unanswered. We still don't know exactly what causes autism; we haven't yet been able to identify specific subtypes of autism; and we still have very few proven treatments for autism. Further research is needed and we will use this site to share that information.

We hope individuals and families will use this site to become informed consumers of autism and intellectual disabilities research.


1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013).Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
2. Grandin, T. (2006).Thinking in pictures: My life with autism (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
3. Volkmar, F., & Klin, A. (2005). Issues in the classification of autism and related conditions. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.),Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders(3rd ed., pp.5-41). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
4. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact.Nervous Child, 2, 217-250.
​Reproduced with permission of Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD, USA. This information appeared originally on the Interactive Autism Network Community website at IANCommunity.org. It has been modified from the original with permission, but Kennedy Krieger Institute is not responsible for the modifications.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

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