Autism Spectrum Disorder


Is your child having trouble learning to talk or making eye contact? These are two of the early signs of a group of developmental disorders known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At Mercy, we understand that early autism diagnosis along with developmental therapy can have a positive impact on your child’s life.  

What is Autism?

ASD covers a range of developmental disorders which affect a child’s social abilities. The spectrum includes mild, moderate and severe autism. Because ASD sits on a spectrum, there are many different symptoms and skills that your child might show. Some children have milder symptoms than others.

The first signs of ASD often appear by the age of 3 and last throughout a person’s life. It’s important to know that they won’t outgrow it – ASD is a part of who they are. But therapy can help ease some symptoms and help your child engage socially.

Receiving an Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis

You’re not alone. Other parents of autistic children offer their advice here.

Autism Signs & Symptoms

Autism can show a variety of symptoms. It’s important to recognize the signs of autism and talk with your child’s pediatrician if they are showing symptoms.

  • Stimming (or self-stimulation), which involves repetitive movements like rocking back and forth, pacing, spinning, tapping or a similar action
  • Sensitivity to sounds, bright or flickering lights, textures and certain smells
  • Echolalia (repeating certain words or phrases)
  • Getting angry or upset over a change in routine
  • Preferring to play alone instead of with other children
  • Rarely making eye contact with others
  • Avoiding physical contact
  • Communication issues, which might include developing language late, using a monotonous tone of voice, not recognizing jokes and sarcasm or being entirely nonverbal
  • Strong attachment to certain objects, topics or activities (often called special interests)

Autism Causes & Risk Factors

There’s no single known cause of autism. It’s likely caused by anomalies in the structure and function of the brain. Genetic changes can be inherited, or genes can mutate spontaneously. These mutations can alter brain development. Autism can also be associated with certain genetic disorders like Rett syndrome and fragile X syndrome.

It’s possible that some environmental factors like infections or complications during pregnancy could influence whether a child develops autism, but research is incomplete. We do know that autism isn’t caused by immunizations or immunization preservatives.  

There are a few factors that can increase the risk of developing autism:

  • Gender – Boys are more likely than girls to be autistic
  • Family history – If someone in your family had autism, the chances that your child will be autistic are higher
  • Preterm birth – Children that are born prematurely have a higher chance of being autistic
  • Parent’s ages – Having a baby when you’re older than 35 can increase the risk of autism

Autism Diagnosis

There’s no single test for autism, but if you notice your child has some symptoms your pediatrician can help diagnose them. At well-child visits, your pediatrician will ask screening questions and may refer you to a child psychiatrist or neuropsychologist. Those specialists can give your child an autism diagnostic assessment for an accurate diagnosis.

Early diagnosis helps your child receive the developmental help they need to progress along the spectrum and adapt to their environment.  

It’s important to monitor your child’s development as they learn how to interact with the world around them. Your Mercy pediatrician can help you identify the signs of autistic development. Watch for important developmental milestones like smiling, making eye contact and trying to communicate. 

Your Mercy pediatrician may give your child a developmental screening during your regular visits, or as a response to concerns, you have about your child’s development. Developmental screening asks questions about your child’s behavior and emotions, as well as where they are in learning language and motor skills.

There’s no blood test for diagnosing ASD, but some screening tools for autism exist. Developmental monitoring and screening can help determine if your child is autistic, but a developmental evaluation goes even further in-depth. The evaluation is typically given by a specialist like a child psychologist rather than your pediatrician.


There are many approaches to a developmental evaluation, but most evaluations include observing and testing the child on basic skills. Many developmental evaluations also involve a questionnaire for the parents to provide their thoughts on their child’s development.

Treatment for Autism

There’s no single course of treatment for autism due to the wide range of symptoms along the spectrum. What works for one child may not work for another, so at Mercy, we’ll help your child find the right treatment for their needs.

Our goal is to reduce symptoms and help your child learn and develop. Mercy offers autism treatment for children from infancy through their teenage years.

Treating autism as early as possible can help your child develop social and communication skills and reduce their symptoms. Because a young child’s mind is easy to influence and change, autistic children can progress quickly along the spectrum.


Intensive early intervention for young children between 18 months and 5 years of age is based on the Applied Behavior Analysis method. Our treatments are led by Mercy’s certified speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and board-certified behavioral analysts.


Treatment is just as important outside the doctor’s office as it is inside. Parent involvement is a huge part of early intervention because you’ll regularly practice newly learned skills at home. 

Behavioral skills are important for every child to learn, but autistic children can have trouble picking up on these skills naturally. Therapy can help your child improve social communication or augmentative and alternative communication.


Social Communication – To promote social interaction and communication and to enhance empathy. Therapy includes learning with role-playing and social interaction to help form positive social bonds.


Augmentative and alternative communication – For children with severe communication challenges. Therapy includes speech and occupational therapy to develop language skills and alternate means of communication.


Mercy will coordinate and design an autism treatment program as an individual as your child, which can include occupational, speech and language therapy, behavior analysis and nutritional guidance. We’re dedicated to helping your child reach their full potential.


Though not all services are available in all areas, we’ll work with you to find the right treatment for your needs.

Specialized Autism Care

In addition to our Behavioral Health Clinics, the Mercy Kids Autism Centers in St. Louis and Springfield, MO offer specialized care for ASD.

Learn more.

Connect to Mercy Experts

View More View More