au·​tism ˈȯ-ˌti-zəm How to pronounce autism (audio)
: a variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized especially by difficulties in forming and maintaining social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate verbally or nonverbally, and by repetitive behavior patterns and restricted interests and activities
… the chief diagnostic signs of autism are social isolation, lack of eye contact, poor language capacity and absence of empathy …Vilayanur S. Ramachandran et al.

called also autistic disorder

see autism spectrum disorder

Examples of autism in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Read the investigation:Isolation and injuries: Parents say school autism program plagued by problems Parents are right to first raise concerns about the treatment of their child with school teachers or principals, said special education consultant Kimberlee Peaslee. Nick Sullivan, The Arizona Republic, 5 Apr. 2024 Solving that mystery could help explain autism's odd mix of nature and nurture, Morris says. Jon Hamilton, NPR, 4 Apr. 2024 California Devastating bodycam video shows the moment deputies opened fire on 15-year-old with autism March 14, 2024 Police agencies should allow members of the public to make up their minds rather than withhold vital information, Loy said. Nathan Solis, Los Angeles Times, 4 Apr. 2024 The franchise, now entering its fifth installment including two for the Australian series, continues to captivate audiences with its heartfelt exploration of love and relationships among people on the autism spectrum. Clayton Davis, Variety, 3 Apr. 2024 When his 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism, Mahmut took a job as a security guard at a storage facility to help pay for services for his son. Leif Wenar, WIRED, 2 Apr. 2024 Experts say abuse can have a particularly devastating effect on people with autism, potentially leading to outbursts and developmental regression. Rebecca Ellis, Los Angeles Times, 26 Mar. 2024 However, signs can be missed because autism is a spectrum and pediatricians may want to give a patient time to develop before making a diagnosis, the Child Mind Institute states. Vanessa Etienne, Peoplemag, 25 Mar. 2024 Other people have a sensory sensitivity (often from sensory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or autism). Amy Paturel, WIRED, 24 Mar. 2024

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'autism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from German Autismus "group of supposed symptoms of schizophrenia that involve a turning away from reality," from Greek autós "self, the same" + German -ismus -ism — more at auto-

Note: The German term Autismus was introduced, along with the corresponding adjective autistisch (see autistic), by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939), in the paper "Zur Theorie des schizophrenen Negativismus," Psychiatrisch-Neurologische Wochenschrift, Nr. 19 (August 6, 1910), 12. Jahrgang 1910/11, pp. 184-98. Adaptation of the word in English to designate what is now termed autism spectrum disorder has been credited to the Austrian-born American physician and psychiatrist Leo Kanner (1894-1981), in the paper "Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact," The Nervous Child, vol. 2 (1943), pp. 217-50. German Autismus and autistisch were used five years earlier to describe essentially the same syndrome by the Austrian physician Hans Asperger (1906-80), in an article in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift ("Das psychisch abnorme Kind," Band 51 [1938], pp. 1314-17), the text of a lecture given on October 3, 1938: "Innerhalb dieser wohl charakterisierten Gruppe von Kindern, die wir wegen der Einengung ihrer Beziehungen zur Umwelt, wegen der Beschränkung auf das eigene Selbst (αυτός) 'autistische Psychopathen' nennen, gibt es nun freilich wieder recht verschiedene, auch recht verschieden zu bewertende Menschen." ("Within this well-characterized group of children, whom we call 'autistic psychopaths' owing to the narrowing of connections to their surroundings and restriction to their own selves (autós), there are to be sure quite a variety of people, among them people to be variably evaluated.") (Note that psychopath here means simply "person judged to be suffering from some mental disorder"—it does not have its current English meaning.) Asperger later acknowledged that the terms Autismus and autistisch had originally been used by Bleuler.

First Known Use

1944, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of autism was in 1944

Dictionary Entries Near autism

Cite this Entry

“Autism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 24 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition


au·​tism ˈȯ-ˌtiz-əm How to pronounce autism (audio)
: a disorder that is characterized especially by problems in interacting and communicating with other people and by doing some activities over and over again

Medical Definition


au·​tism ˈȯ-ˌtiz-əm How to pronounce autism (audio)
: a developmental disorder that appears by age three and that is variable in expression but is recognized and diagnosed by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by stereotyped behavior patterns especially as exhibited by a preoccupation with repetitive activities of restricted focus rather than with flexible and imaginative ones
But more than 60 years after it was first identified, autism remains mystifying and stubbornly difficult to treat. About the only thing parents, doctors and policy makers agree on is that the best chance for autistic children to develop social and language skills is to enroll them in some type of intensive behavioral therapy.Benedict Carey, The New York Times
Although the chief diagnostic signs of autism are social isolation, lack of eye contact, poor language capacity and absence of empathy, other less well known symptoms are commonly evident. Many people with autism have problems understanding metaphors, sometimes interpreting them literally. They also have difficulty miming other people's actions.Vilayanur S. Ramachandran et al., Scientific American
In approximately 10% of patients, autism can be explained by genetic syndromes and known chromosomal anomalies …Lauren A Weiss et al., The New England Journal of Medicine

called also autistic disorder

see autism spectrum disorder

More from Merriam-Webster on autism

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