The Key Symptoms of Autism | Visualized Health

Reviewed by The Clinical Committee

July 19, 2019

  • Autism is defined by deficits in social communication, interaction, and relationships.

  • Alongside these 3 main characteristics, autism can also include repetitive motions, insistence on routines, and altered sensitivities to stimuli.

How Do Doctors Define Autism?

The DSM-5 defines 3 main characteristics as necessary for diagnosing autism. These are deficits in socio-emotional reciprocity, which refers to deficits in conversations and social interactions, non-verbal communication, which include hand gestures and eye contact, and deficits in relationships, which includes making friends.

Outside of these 3 main characteristics, there are 4 symptoms that often accompany autism. However, a patient does not need all 4 to qualify as autistic. By definition, patients need to show at least two of these four symptoms, either currently or in the past, to qualify as having Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What is the DSM?

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual is the most commonly used manual for diagnosing psychiatric disorders and conditions. Since psychiatric disorders are often not well defined by an underlying cause, manuals like these are used to define what consistitutes a disorder and what is normal behavior.

4 Key Symptoms of Autism


Repetitive Movements

Children with autism often engage in what we call repetitive movements. These are motions that range from finger-tapping to rocking motions involving the entire body. They can also include spoken repetitions, otherwise known as echolalia, where children repeat the same sounds or phrases over and over again.

Reference: European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

"They divided the behaviors observed in five types: 1) ritual behaviors, where motoric sequences were repeated over and over; 2) low intensity sensory behaviors, where low intensity sensory input, through various sensory modalities, sight, taste, hearing or smell, was involved; 3) high intensity sensory behaviors, possibly involving pain-provoking behaviors; 4) stereotypic trunk movements; and 5) stereotypic limb movements. In the latter two, there was a repetitive stereotyped movement involving the trunk, with rocking or jumping, and in the limbs, hand mannerisms or flapping."


Insistence on Routine

Children with autism often enjoy and insist on “sameness.” They may want to eat things in the same way and the same order. They may want to discuss the same topics with the same phrases. They may also become upset if their day deviates from this sameness.

Reference: National Autistic Society

"The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast."



While many of us have hobbies, autistic children have a fixation on certain interests that may seem niche or outside of the norm. One common example is a strong obsession with trains or cars, though every obsession can be different. Unfortunately, these obsessions can get in the way of normal social interaction.

Reference: TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus

" Zeb is a middle school student who, given the chance, would talk about hurricanes all day long. Jeffrey is in high school and he loves electronic gadgets. He spends all his free time deconstructing old electronic gadgets, then either reconstructing them or building new ones from the spare parts. All three of these students are identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One of the defining characteristics of children with ASD is their engagement with restricted interests."


High and Low Sensitivity

Autism often includes an abnormal response to stimuli. This can take the form of over-sensitivity and under-sensitivity. Some individuals may be extra sensitive to touch or physical contact. Others may not feel or care much for things that should be painful. Some may be hypersensitive to sights and sounds, where normal situations can lead to hypersensitive and discomfort.

Reference: Pediatr Res

"What does appear to be common to individuals across the spectrum are atypical behavioral responses to sensory information. Over 96% of children with ASD report hyper and hypo-sensitivities in multiple domains. Similar to the wide-range of spectrum severity found for communication and social deficits, sensory behavioral differences also range from mild to severe, and these behavioral differences can endure through adulthood."

Summary of Autism Symptoms

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