Childhood Autism Symptoms: ICD Diagnostic Critera for Childhood Autism

The formal diagnosis of childhood autism rests on these symptoms, which can be evaluated by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. Also see the separate page on ICD criteria for Atypical Autism.

ICD-10 Criteria for Childhood Autism

The following information is reproduced verbatim from the ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992. (Since the WHO updates the overall ICD on a regular basis, individual classifications within it may or may not change from year to year; therefore, you should always check directly with the WHO to be sure of obtaining the latest revision for any particular individual classification.)

F84.0 Childhood Autism

A pervasive developmental disorder defined by the presence of abnormal and/or impaired development that is manifest before the age of 3 years, and by the characteristic type of abnormal functioning in all three areas of social interaction, communication, and restricted, repetitive behaviour. The disorder occurs in boys three to four times more often than in girls.

Diagnostic Guidelines

Usually there is no prior period of unequivocally normal development but, if there is, abnormalities become apparent before the age of 3 years. There are always qualitative impairments in reciprocal social interaction. These take the form of an inadequate appreciation of socio-emotional cues, as shown by a lack of responses to other people’s emotions and/or a lack of modulation of behaviour according to social context; poor use of social signals and a weak integration of social, emotional, and communicative behaviours; and, especially, a lack of socio-emotional reciprocity. Similarly, qualitative impairments in communications are universal. These take the form of a lack of social usage of whatever language skills are present; impairment in make-believe and social imitative play; poor synchrony and lack of reciprocity in conversational interchange; poor flexibility in language expression and a relative lack of creativity and fantasy in thought processes; lack of emotional response to other people’s verbal and nonverbal overtures; impaired use of variations in cadence or emphasis to reflect communicative modulation; and a similar lack of accompanying gesture to provide emphasis or aid meaning in spoken communication.

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The condition is also characterized by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests, and activities. These take the form of a tendency to impose rigidity and routine on a wide range of aspects of day-to day functioning; this usually applies to novel activities as well as to familiar habits and play patterns. In early childhood particularly, there may be specific attachment to unusual, typically non-soft objects. The children may insist on the performance of particular routines in rituals of a nonfunctional character; there may be stereotyped preoccupations with interests such as dates, routes or timetables; often there are motor stereotypies; a specific interest in nonfunctional elements of objects (such as their smell or feel) is common; and there may be a resistance to changes in routine or in details of the personal environment (such as the movement of ornaments or furniture in the family home).

In addition to these specific diagnostic features, it is frequent for children with autism to show a range of other nonspecific problems such as fear/phobias, sleeping and eating disturbances, temper tantrums, and aggression. Self-injury (e.g. by wrist-biting) is fairly common, especially when there is associated severe mental retardation. Most individuals with autism lack spontaneity, initiative, and creativity in the organization of their leisure time and have difficulty applying conceptualizations in decision-making in work (even when the tasks themselves are well within their capacity). The specific manifestation of deficits characteristic of autism change as the children grow older, but the deficits continue into and through adult life with a broadly similar pattern of problems in socialization, communication, and interest patterns. Developmental abnormalities must have been present in the first 3 years for the diagnosis to be made, but the syndrome can be diagnosed in all age groups.

All levels of IQ can occur in association with autism, but there is significant mental retardation in some three-quarters of cases.


  • autistic disorder
  • infantile autism
  • infantile psychosis
  • Kanner’s syndrome

Differential Diagnosis

Apart from the other varieties of pervasive developmental disorder it is important to consider: specific developmental disorder of receptive language (F80.2) with secondary socio-emotional problems; reactive attachment disorder (F94.1) or disinhibited attachment disorder (F94.2); mental retardation (F70-F79) with some associated emotional/behavioural disorder; schizophrenia (F20.- ) of unusually early onset; and Rett’s syndrome (F84.2).


  • autistic psychopathy (F84.5)

ICD-10 copyright © 1992 by World Health Organization.

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