What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that appears in the first few years of a child’s life. While people with ASD don’t look different, they often communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are very different from most people.

ASD is a spectrum disorder, so the type and severity of symptoms people experience varies widely. Some people with ASD are intellectually gifted while others struggle with the basics. Some people with ASD need constant supervision while others live independently.

To better understand ASD, watch this helpful video from Amazing Things Happen.

Early Signs of ASD

Autism is generally thought to exist in a child from birth, but the behavioral characteristics or symptoms associated with it may not appear right away. Some parents of children with autism describe their children as being “different” soon after birth. They may be very quiet, “easy” babies. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they may be very fussy. Their language and other skills often lag behind those of their peers.

Other parents report that their children appeared to develop normally until about 18-24 months of age. Then, suddenly, they seemed to stop developing new skills and often lost skills that they had previously mastered. Parents often report that their child stopped talking around this age and no longer seemed interested in playing with them.

You can learn more about typical developmental milestones on this timeline provided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you have concerns about your child’s development, talk to your physician right away. If you want a tool to record and share your observations, download the CDC’s Milestone Tracker App. The earlier you diagnose a developmental delay, the better.

Indicators of ASD include:

  • Not responding to his or her name by 12 months of age
  • Avoiding eye contact and/or preferring to be alone
  • Decreased use of gestures (e.g., pointing and waving) to communicate.
  • Engaging in certain repetitive body movements (e.g., spinning or flapping hands)
  • Not engaging in pretend play (e.g., feeding a doll or petting a stuffed animal) by 18 months of age
  • Decreased babbling or use of language


The CDC estimates that approximately 1 in 44 have been identified with ASD. To learn more about the prevalence of ASD by gender, geography, race/ethnicity and more, take a look at the CDC’s Autism Data Visualization Tool.

You can explore data on the health and wellbeing of children and families with ASD using this portal from the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative.

At this time, autism is not a reportable health condition in Virginia, so the only data available for the Commonwealth comes from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). And while the VDOE has not updated its public statistics in a couple of years, this chart shows that the number of Virginia’s students with ASD has been steadily increasing since 1998.

Source: Virginia Department of Education


Six. That’s the average age of diagnosis of ASD in the state of Virginia. And that’s a shame. Because professionals can make a reliable diagnosis of ASD in children as young as two. And when it comes to diagnosing ASD, the sooner, the better.


Since there is no blood test to determine the presence of autism, diagnosing ASD can be difficult. A medical diagnosis begins with screening.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors screen for autism at both the 18-month and 24-month well-child visits. If you are not sure whether your pediatrician screens for ASD, ask. During a screening, the pediatrician observes the child’s behavior and development. The doctor may also ask the child’s caregiver to complete a questionnaire. If the doctor notices atypical or delayed development, he or she may recommend a comprehensive diagnostic assessment.

Medical Diagnosis

The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) to provide healthcare professionals with a common vocabulary and standard criteria for diagnosing mental health conditions such as ASD. The association published the current version of the manual, the DSM-5, in 2013. In this edition, the diagnosis of ASD emphasizes “deficits in social communication and social interaction” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.”

The autism spectrum disorder diagnosis now includes three conditions formerly diagnosed separately: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

Educational Diagnosis

Just because your child receives a medical diagnosis of ASD does not mean he or she will automatically receive the educational disability category of autism. This means your child may not be immediately eligible for special education services through the public school system. We encourage you to contact your local school division’s special education department to request an assessment to obtain an educational diagnosis.

For more information, refer to A Parent’s Guide to Special Education from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) and the autism page on the VDOE’s website.

Many parents of children with ASD report that they have behavioral issues at school. Often times, a child “acts out” because they have no other way to communicate. Talk to your child’s educational team about your concerns. A functional behavior assessment (FBA) might help you determine how best to support your child through a behavior intervention plan (BIP). You might also consider contacting a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA).

Treatment & Intervention

There is currently no cure for autism. However, research shows that numerous interventions can effectively target the core symptoms of ASD.

Research shows that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is an effective treatment, so it is referred to as being “evidence-based.” ABA works for children, adolescents and adults. ABA uses techniques and principles such as reinforcement to address socially important problems and effect meaningful behavior change.

The Importance of Early Intervention

When it comes to intervention, the sooner, the better. In fact, research shows that intervention is most effective in the preschool years, when the brain is developing most rapidly.

The commonwealth of Virginia provides early intervention services for children until they are three years old. Sadly, many families miss out on these services because they are reluctant to seek a diagnosis when concerns first arise. If you suspect a developmental delay, ask your doctor for an assessment. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

It’s also important to remember that intervention at any age can still help. In fact, according to the National Autism Center, many educational and behavioral interventions have been proven effective for people up to the age of 22.

Avoiding Misinformation

It’s important to note that there is a lot of misinformation about ASD on the internet and elsewhere. At best, this misinformation is confusing. At worst, it may be harmful. We recommend the following resources to anyone interested in learning more about evidence-based treatments and interventions:

Our blog is another great source of information regarding treatment and intervention.

The Cost of Treatment

In Virginia, there are several ways to pay for treatment and services:

  • Public funding: Early intervention, FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education)
  • Private insurance: As of January 2020, Virginia law mandates that state-regulated large group plans cover medically necessary care for people with autism, regardless of age
  • Medicaid or a Medicaid waiver
  • 529 ABLE (529A) accounts
  • Out of pocket

Your Rights

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures services to children with disabilities. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention services (for ages birth to three) and special education and related services (for ages 3-21).

Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Remember, just because your child has a medical diagnosis of ASD does not mean they’ll automatically receive the educational disability category of autism. If your child does receive an educational diagnosis of ASD, their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team decides whether your local school division can provide FAPE. If it can’t, the state will pay for out-of-school placement. For more information regarding placement decisions, read A Parent’s Guide to Special Education from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

Knowing early can make a significant difference.

Do you suspect your child has autism or another developmental disorder?

Find out for sure.

Preschool Inclusion Program

We partner with inclusive preschools to provide a full-day program for children ages two to six in early childhood centers throughout Virginia. This program is licensed by the Virginia Department of Social Services and provides individualized intervention in a preschool setting.

Our Approach

We provide support to preschool centers located in Virginia. Our goal is for kids with autism to learn alongside typically developing children. Children, with support from preschool staff, participate alongside their peers in the classroom. We provide opportunities for:

  • Inclusion: Children with ASD and other developmental disabilities learn alongside neuro-typical friends.
  • Fun: Children participate in play-centered activities in a social environment.
  • Development: Parents and students work with highly trained specialists.
  • Community: Families connect with others with similar challenges.

State law mandates coverage of ABA services in most insurance policies regardless of age. The preschools we partner with accept various forms of insurance.

We have partnered with Precious Time Child Development Center in Midlothian, VA to offer the Preschool Inclusion Program. They are located at 13711 Village Mill Drives. Complete the intake form below for more information and to apply.

As the Preschool Inclusion Program gains traction across the Commonwealth, we’ll come back to update this page. You can also contact us or search our Resource Directory for locations in your area or other resources you may need.

CA Adult Programs

At CA Human Services we provide a variety of programs for Virginians with developmental disabilities such as autism. Our programs are aimed at bolstering teens to adults as they embrace growth and change. In each of our programs, we support independent living skills development through direct teaching, modeling, and shared problem-solving. We harness both intrinsic motivation and natural community supports to help individuals build sustainable solutions. CA is committed to developing honest and trusting relationships, building community partnerships, and using evidence-based practices to support young adults and their families. In each of our programs, we emphasize increasing independence. 

Readiness Program

Our readiness program supports young adults who live at home with a parent or a supportive party, who have the capacity and want to live independently. This program focuses on building resident skills and encourages your adult to take ownership of personal responsibilities in preparation for their transition out of the home.

Participants are paired with a coach. Together, and with family input, they create a Personal Development Plan (PDP). The PDP establishes goals and maps out strategies for achieving those goals. With support from CA coaches, clients will work on residential and independent living skills to transition to a group or independent living setting, such as CA’s Residential Program. 

Participants meet with their counselor a few times a week to work on skills such as:

  • Household cleanliness
  • Personal finances and budgeting
  • Careers and employment
  • Transportation
  • Personal safety
  • Fitness and wellness
  • Time management
  • Cooking, meal prep and nutrition
  • Medical care management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication and self advocacy
  • Social skills and relationships

Location & Accomodations

CA staff are able to support individuals across the Commonwealth through telehealth services. We also offer in-person sessions on a limited basis. 

Eligibility & Enrollment

To be eligible, adults must be: 

  • Age 16 to 30 with ASD or similar developmental disability
  • Motivated to live independently

Residential Program

Our residential program offers transitional housing for adults with autism who are interested in developing the life skills necessary to live on their own. The length of stay varies with each resident, their skill level and goals. The ultimate goal of this program is for participants to move into their own apartment with just a little bit of ongoing support.

Location & Accommodations

Our residential home is centrally located in Richmond’s Near West End. The home is co-ed. Each resident has their own room.

We are currently seeking applicants for the annual Invest in Independence Scholarship.

Apply now using this link or contact us to learn more.

Click here to view the Spanish version of the Scholarship application.

Eligibility & Enrollment

If the program is full, we maintain a waiting list. To be eligible, adults ages 18 and older with ASD must be:

  • Employed full or part time,
  • Actively seeking employment,
  • Volunteering, or
  • Enrolled in post-secondary education
  • Motivated to live independently


A multidisciplinary team supports the program, which is led by a master’s level clinician. Residents are supported by a qualified counselor for several hours each day and are supported overnight by a Resident Advisor/On-call model.

Employment Services

We help residents conduct job searches, practice interview skills and connect them with local employment services.


Although we can provide transportation on a limited basis, we encourage residents to plan for and provide their own transportation. They do this by:

  • Walking (we teach residents about pedestrian safety)
  • Public transportation (there’s a bus stop in our front yard)
  • Riding the Carevan (the local paratransit service offered are ADA compliant)
  • Driving their own vehicle

Social Opportunities

We encourage residents to volunteer and attend social groups and community events. We can help them identify these opportunities.

Interested in CA's Adult Residential Program?

We’d love to give you a tour.

Community Support Program

We support adults living independently in an apartment, or home of their own, or shared with roommates. This support enables them to thrive independently, rather than living in a group home or with family.

This program is designed for people with developmental disabilities who live independently or want to, but still need a little support. We pair each participant with a coach. Together, and with family input, they create a Community Support Plan (CSP). The CSP establishes goals and maps out strategies for achieving those goals. Participants meet with their counselor a few times a week to work on skills such as:

  • Household cleanliness
  • Personal finances and budgeting
  • Careers and employment
  • Transportation
  • Personal Safety
  • Fitness and Wellness
  • Time management
  • Cooking, meal prep and nutrition
  • Medical care management
  • Problem solving
  • Communication and self advocacy
  • Social skills and relationships


Coaches and clients work together to agree where, when and how often to meet.


The Readiness and Community Support Program are offered on an hourly fee with a one-time Assessment Fee which is paid upfront. The Residential Program is offered through a monthly all-inclusive fee. There are several ways to pay for our adult programs, including private pay, fundraising and scholarships. Each individual’s situation is unique, so we’re here to help you navigate the payment process.


We offer two types of scholarships for our Adult Programs. Both are based on financial need for those who qualify for our programs.
  • The Invest in Independence Scholarship is a fully funded year in the Residential Program – 1 Scholarship is available annually as funds are available
  • The DBHDS scholarship offers qualified applicants 50% off hourly and monthly program costs for each of programs

For more information or to get started with our programs, give us a call at 804-355-0300 or contact us through the email button below:

[Our daughter’s coach] is doing an excellent job identifying goals with her and helping her meet them. This is a great stepping stone to independence.

Parent of Participant

young adults at tables

Be the change you want to see.

Developmental Disabilities Action Groups

We encourage your desire to get involved and make a difference. By supporting regional action groups that advocate on behalf of people with autism and other developmental disabilities, we enable clients, their parents and others to create change themselves. 

The members of regional Developmental Disabilities Action Groups—many of whom are parents preparing for a day when they will no longer be able to care for their children—focus on advocacy by:

  • Supporting each other
  • Lobbying legislators
  • Partnering with allies in other organizations
  • Interacting with the media

Although many of these groups’ members are parents of people with autism and other developmental disabilities, they welcome self advocates, educators, professionals and service providers. We don’t manage these groups, but we support their work. They team up to support each other while championing causes important to their community. They focus their efforts on:

  • Supported housing
  • Qualified services
  • Socialization opportunities
  • Meaningful employment
  • Transition support
  • Advocacy and awareness

Charlottesville Region Autism Action Group (CRAAG)

The Charlottesville Region Autism Action Group (CRAAG) serves: Charlottesville, Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson.

Interested in learning more about CRAAG? 

Want to start your own developmental disabilities action group?

Autism Resource Database

We’ve partnered with No Wrong Door Virginia, a statewide network of shared resources that streamlines access to long-term services and supports, to create our resource directory. To learn more about this statewide network, visit the No Wrong Door website Our Autism Resource Database includes everything from camps for children with ASD to training opportunities for ABAs.

  • Click on the “Search by category” drop down menu to see the various categories and subcategories you can use to search.
  • You can also search by geographic region (e.g., Hampton Roads or Central Virginia) or by age group (note: “child” resources may serve individuals through age 21, particularly if they are education-based resources).
  • Alternatively, use keywords (e.g., after-school activities, college prep, or newly diagnosed) to find the resources you are looking for.

Having trouble finding the resource(s) you’re looking for? Would you prefer speaking directly with someone on our team?

Suggest a Database Resource

Are we missing a resource we should include in our database? Do you have a correction or additional information to share?

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