Emily Phillips scoots around the family kitchen in her Aliso Viejo home on a recent afternoon. Laguna Beach Unified is reflecting national trends that reveal an increase in numbers of children with autism. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / February 12, 2014)

Five-year-old Emily Phillips beams around the house with a smile that melts hearts. Her parents, Susan and Larry Phillips, adopted Emily at birth, and she's grown into a bubbly, curious child.

She attends pre-kindergarten at Laguna Beach Presbyterian Church, rides her scooter and sometimes asks Susan if she can have some candy, the usual childhood desires.

Emily is also autistic, one of a growing number of children diagnosed with a syndrome characterized by impaired social interaction.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District reflects a nationwide trend of greater numbers of children being diagnosed with autism, data show.

In six years, the number of district students with autism has increased from 29 at the end of 2007 to 76 as of last December, according to Irene White, the district's special-education director.

The 76 students represent 25% of the 302 students in special-education programs.

Susan suspected something was wrong when Emily was 18 months old.

"She had no eye contact with anyone but myself," Susan wrote in an email. "She was unaware we had two dogs. She never pointed to anything and had no words."

Lapses in concentration and a lack of social etiquette are other symptoms of autism.

A speech pathologist picked up on Susan's suspicion, and a neurologist diagnosed Emily with autism two months shy of her third birthday.

Emily has outbursts, bangs her head on the ground and pushes the dog for no reason, Susan said.

At times Emily is too outgoing with kids on the playground.

"She comes on strong, and [the other kids] don't know how to react," Susan said in an interview. "We have to explain to her that kids need their space."

While Emily was behind in her physical development — she began crawling at 11 months and walked at 18 months — she learned to read early, at age 3, Susan said.

Emily sees a neurologist once a year and doesn't take medication. She works with two behavior specialists once a week and spends two hours each day after school learning to properly socialize with other kids.

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Crucial early intervention

The hallmark feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is impaired social interaction, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

A baby with ASD may be unresponsive or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement. Many engage in repetitive movements, such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior, such as biting or head-banging.

Conditions on the autism spectrum strike 1 in 88 children and are four times more likely to occur in boys, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.