Autism Guide

Understanding autism at any age — at home, at school and in life.


Micaelia Randolph, EdD, MA

Educational Consultant

Melanie Hsu author image


Melanie V. Hsu, PhD

Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Clinical Program Manager
CHC’s Catherine T. Harvey Center for Clinical Services

A View of Autism Across the Lifespan

Autism is a set of complex neurological variables that impact development, behavior, social interactions and communication. Early diagnosis and intervention can result in long-term positive impact and the strong possibility of reaching one’s full potential. It’s important to consider the challenges and strengths associated with autism. As of the 2020 census, the CDC reports 1 in 36 children in the US have autism with 4 times as many boys as girls diagnosed. With a wide variety and intensity of symptoms, each child has a unique combination of challenges and gifts. Treatment improves symptoms and can help support a full and meaningful life.

Young Child

The signs of autism vary widely. In young children these are some commonly observed early symptoms:

  • May not respond to name
  • Recognizes patterns
  • Not talking as much as others
  • Little to no pretend play
  • Strong memory for rote information (e.g., names of colors, shapes, vehicles)
  • Limited interests
  • Sensitive to sensory stimuli
  • May become easily aggravated
  • Little interactive play with same-aged peers
  • Repetitive movements

School Age Child

As children experience more social situations (like school), the lack of social skills may begin to become more apparent. Commonly observed traits may include:

  • Doesn’t seem to respond to others’ thoughts or feelings
  • Repetitive movements
  • Good vocabulary
  • Likes daily routines
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Learns to read early but may struggle with comprehension
  • Hyperfocused on areas of interest to them
  • Memorizes easily
  • Uses facial expressions that don’t match their message
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Sensitive to sensory input
  • Excessive attention to detail


During the adolescent years, teens are exposed to new social situations, which can cause anxiety. Sometimes this is when girls (or those assigned female at birth) may start to show more social concerns.

  • Unusual challenges in developing friendships
  • Difficulty understanding subtle communication cues like tone, facial expression or body language
  • Focuses on patterns or details that others may not
  • Prefers to isolate and focus on specific interests 
  • Unusually honest
  • Sensitive to sensory input
  • Appears to be rude without meaning to be
  • Lacks conversational skills
  • Difficulty applying learned information


Symptoms may be similar to those of adolescents. Adulthood is filled with new challenges, such as managing money, finding and keeping a job and more.

  • Trouble understanding what others are thinking or feeling
  • Uncomfortable in social situations
  • Strong visual thinking
  • Trouble making friends or dating
  • Very focused on a specific interest
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Difficulties with independent living
  • Participates in limited number of activities

Your Questions Answered

Top questions answered by CHC experts.

How is autism diagnosed?

As a neurodevelopmental disorder, the underlying causes of autism are still not fully understood, but ongoing research provides frequent updates to information, support and intervention advice. In addition, significant work on neurodiversity and autism culture positions autism as part of the natural range of learner variability. Autism diagnoses often involve a two-part evaluation: 1) a medical evaluation by a pediatrician as part of a routine well-child checkup that includes obtaining information from the parents/caregivers; and 2) a more detailed thorough evaluation after referral from the pediatrician. These evaluations are often completed by psychologists or developmental behavioral pediatricians and should include a combination of psychological, medical, and neurological screenings of language, cognitive abilities, motor abilities, social skills, and activities of daily living. The gold standard for diagnosing autism is a test called the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd Edition (ADOS-2).

What resources are available?

Once diagnosed, the family should be directed to resources. Multidisciplinary support can include but is not limited to: a pediatrician, child psychologists, direct service providers (e.g., ABA providers, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists), parent support groups, self advocacy groups, access to internet and online groups that specialize in autism like the Autism Society or POAC autism services and pride groups and services like educational programs and specific therapies. CHC and Stanford have a joint program called ESPA (Early Support for Autism) that provides free supports for families, including psychoeducation, and helps with navigating and coordinating services.

What does it mean to be “on the spectrum?”

Autism comprises a wide range of diverse symptoms that are clustered into two general domains: social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors. As a neurodevelopmental disorder, different combinations of language, motor skills, sensory filters, perception and executive function can be present, while at its core it is about social communication. These traits can range from needing support to needing very significant support, and many people with autism are able to manage their symptoms and live life fully. Those with autism may have special and unique gifts like being detail oriented, seeing patterns, strong visual thinking, extensive vocabulary and more. Because there can be stigma associated with autism, it is important to recognize the unique gifts each child possesses and embrace the notion that everyone is different.

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Tools, Tips & Takeaways





CHC Voices of Compassion Podcast

Our weekly CHC podcast with expert insights, inspiration and creative conversations about mental health, education and family.

I Just Learned My Child Has Autism — Now What?

EPISODE 27, SEASON 2 | APRIL 13, 2022

with Seema Motwani, Otr/L and Gina G. Baldi, MEd

The CDC and National Health Statistics Reports estimate that there is a 1-2% chance of a child being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the rates for boys are higher than that for girls. So, if your child has just been diagnosed with autism, you are not alone. In today’s podcast episode, CHC experts Seema Motwani, Occupational Therapist and Gina Baldi, Parent Trainer in our Early Support Program for Autism (ESPA) tell us where to turn for services, therapies and support. Best of all, they remind us that an autism diagnosis doesn’t change who our child is or what they’re capable of. (Hint: anything).

Language Delays in Young Children


with Shirit Megiddo, MS, CCC-SLP, BSC-CL and Kharyl Anne Piano, MS, CCC-SLP

A lack of socialization over the past two years has a lot of parents worried about their children’s language development. In fact, one of the most viewed articles in our online Resource Library right now focuses on speech delays in young children during COVID. How do we know when our kids should be progressing from first words to full sentences? Have masks and social distancing affected typical language development? Where should we turn if we’re concerned? Today’s podcast guests — two CHC Speech and Language Pathologists — will put these questions to rest and share ideas to foster healthy language development at home.

Parenting a Young Child with Autism

EPISODE 18, SEASON 3 | APRIL 19, 2023

with Sarah Knepper, MEd and Cristal Byrne, PhD

Autism can present in many different ways, but at its core it’s about social communication. Autism is usually suspected at a young age because children aren’t developing language or social skills at the same rate as their peers. Sometimes parents don’t want to have their child screened for autism because they are afraid of labels, stigma and limitations. But while overwhelming, diagnosis can also bring support, services and maybe even relief. Don’t miss this special podcast episode with two CHC experts who are also parents of young children with autism. Join us to hear personal and professional advice for finding empathy, understanding and community while raising a child on the spectrum.

Featured Resources

Learn more about autism from CHC experts.

How We Help

CHC provides life-changing services for learning differences and mental health for young adults, kids and teens.

Our Experts

At CHC, we have learning and mental health experts who can help you overcome barriers to learning and help you develop skills that last for a lifetime. Real people you can talk to. People who can really help.

Melanie Hsu headshot

Melanie V. Hsu, PhD


Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Program Manager

Learn More About DR. HSU

Dylan Stewart, PsyD

Dylan Stewart, PsyD


Licensed Psychologist

Learn More About Dr. Stewart

Ariela Laibson, LCSW

Ariela Laibson, LCSW


Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Learn More About Ariela

Gina Baldi, MEd

Gina Baldi, MEd


Parent Trainer, Early Support Program for Autism (ESPA)

Learn More About Gina

Comprehensive & Integrated Services for Learning Differences & Mental Health

CHC’s Catherine T. Harvey Center for Clinical Services

CHC therapists provide specialized, individualized and age-appropriate services for you to take charge of your own mental health and wellbeing. Services in California.

Schwab Learning Center at CHC

The SLC@CHC empowers all types of learners to adopt tools and strategies to support their unique strengths. Students and young adults with diagnosed or suspected ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities discover their gifts, strengths and potential.

Related CHC Offerings

Check out other CHC offerings for services and support for kids, youth, and families with autism.

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