What Is Autism?

AUTISM VIDEO CLICK HEREAutism is lifelong, neuro-atypical development that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. This section explains some of the different names for autism and related conditions, and provides information about gender, discussions about causes and current research.

Who is affected by autism?

People from all nationalities and cultural, religious, countries and social backgrounds can be autistic, although it appears to affect more men than women. It is a lifelong condition: children with autism grow up to become autistic adults. Today in the US, 1 in 32 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Age is not a factor because 50 year old as well as babies have been diagnosed for behaviors. The statistics vary from country to country but the rise in incidence is universal.

Autistic people see, hear and feel the world in a different way from other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life – autism is not an ‘illness’ and cannot be ‘cured’. Often people feel being autistic as a fundamental aspect of their identity.

You might hear people say that autism is a spectrum condition. This means that, while all autistic people share certain difficulties, being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, physical conditions such as epilepsy or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other conditions. As a result, people need different levels of support. Autistic people may also experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colors.

Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are of average or above average intelligence. They have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.

How do autistic people see the world?

Autistic people say the world often feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety and frustrations. In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life can be harder if you’re autistic. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. Often autistic people may wonder why they are ‘different’ and often feel their social differences mean people don’t understand them. The inability to read facial and body cues, the environment as a whole, to sense danger, lacking in boundaries, discrimination and discernment skills, sets them apart with skills the rest of the world takes for granted.

Autistic people often do not ‘look’ disabled. Parents of autistic children often say that other people simply think their child is naughty, while adults find that they are misunderstood. All autistic people can benefit from a timely diagnosis and access to appropriate services, education in the soft skills and support.

How autism is diagnosed?

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another but in order for diagnosis to be made, a person will be seen to be experiencing difficulties in three main areas. These are:

  • difficulty with social communication
  • difficulty with social interaction
  • restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.

There is information about all three areas below.

1. Difficulty with social communication

For people with autistic spectrum disorders, ‘body language’ can appear just as foreign as if people were speaking ancient Greek. Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They may find it difficult to use or understand:

  • facial expressions or tone of voice
  • jokes and sarcasm

Some autistic people may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. Autistic people will usually understand more of what other people say to them, than they are able to express, yet may struggle with vagueness or abstract concepts. Some autistic people prefer to use alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols or use computers. Some autistic people are able to communicate very effectively without speech.

Others will have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.It helps if other people speak in a clear, consistent way and give people on the autism spectrum time to process what has been said to them. Even better, autistics seem to function better when things are written down, spelled out in graphic pictures such as a task board and given specific time deadlines.

2. Difficulty with social interaction

Autistic people often have difficulty recognizing or understanding other people’s emotions and feelings, or expressing their own. Such difficulties can make it very hard for autistic people to navigate the social world. They may:

  • appear to be insensitive because they have not recognized how someone else is feeling- lack empathy
  • may seek out time alone when overloaded by other people- become overstimulated easily
  • not seek comfort from other people
  • appear to behave ‘strangely’ or in a way thought to be socially ‘inappropriate’, as it is not always easy for them to express feelings, emotions or needs.

Difficulties with social interaction can mean that autistic people may find it hard to form friendships: some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about this. In environments where other autistic people congregate, they are much more social because others share their ‘secret’.

3. Restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.

The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. This routine can extend to always wanting to travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast.

One young autistic person attended a day service. He would be dropped off by taxi, walk up to the door of the day service, knock on it and be let in. One day, the door opened before he could knock and a person came out. Rather than go in through the open door, he returned to the taxi and began the routine again. Autistics often resemble and/or exhibit OCD behavior- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The use of rules can also be important: it may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it. People on the autism spectrum may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but may be able to cope better if they are prepared for it in advance and it is repeated over and over ahead of time.

Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests, often from a fairly young age. These can change over time or be lifelong, and can be anything from art or music, to trains or computers. Some autistic people may eventually be able to work or study in related areas. For others, it will remain a hobby. Finding their passion at a young age can result in directing them to successful careers as adults.

An interest may sometimes be unusual. One autistic person loved collecting rubbish, for example; with encouragement, this was channeled into an interest in recycling and the environment. Autistic people often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their well-being and happiness.

3. Other characteristics of autism

Autism is different for everyone but as well as the three main areas of difficulty, autistic people may have:

  • sensory sensitivity
  • learning disabilities.

Sensory Sensitivity

James loves art but he hates wearing a shirt to protect his clothing – the feeling of the fabric against his skin causes him distress. We have agreed with his school that he can wear a loose-fitting apron instead. Autistic people may experience some form of sensory sensitivity. This can occur in one or more of the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. A person’s senses are either intensified (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hypo-sensitive).

Often, their senses are much more acute then our own. Jason could hear the electricity running through the walls. Pam could hear things happening a mile away. Because of this hyper sensitivity, autistics get easily distracted and lose focus.

For example, an autistic person may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting- like the music that plays in the dentists office or at the grocery store. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Daniel can pilot a plane but driving a car is too anxiety prone because of all of the background noise and confusion. People who are hypo-sensitive may not feel pain or extremes of temperature. Some may rock, spin, pace or flap their hands to stimulate sensation, to help with balance and posture or to deal with stress.

People with sensory sensitivity may also find it harder to use their body awareness system. This system tells us where our bodies are, so for those with reduced body awareness, it can be harder to navigate rooms avoiding obstructions, stand at an appropriate distance from other people and carry out ‘fine motor’ tasks such as tying shoelaces.

Learning disabilities

I have a helper who sits with me and if I’m stuck on a word she helps me. It makes a big difference. Autistic people may have learning disabilities, which can affect all aspects of someone’s life, from studying in school, to learning how to wash themselves or make a meal. People can have different ‘degrees’ of learning disability, so some will be able to live fairly independently – although they may need a degree of support to achieve this – while others may require lifelong, specialist support. Many of them lack organizational skills which means they don’t know how to get ready for school/work by getting out clothes, breakfast etc., their living space is a mess, unable to manage money or time. However, all people with autism learn and develop. With the right sort of support, listening and understanding, all autistic people can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.

Other conditions are sometimes associated with autism. These may include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Causes and cures

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism is still being investigated. However, research suggests that a combination of factors – genetic and environmental – may account for differences in development. This will be explained more in depth in another post.

Is there a cure?

At present, there is no ‘cure’ for autism because it is not a disease. However, there is a range of interventions – methods of enabling learning and development – which people may find to be helpful. Find out about these strategies and approaches. Some will be discussed in another post.


A diagnosis is the formal identification of autism, usually by a health professional such as a pediatrician or a psychiatrist or psychologist. Having a diagnosis is helpful for two reasons:

  • it helps autistic people (and their families) to understand why they may experience certain difficulties and what they can do about them
  • it allows people to access services and support.

However, the identification should not be used to pidgeon-hole anyone into assuming behavior, treatment or life long success. Many people are diagnosed as children; their parents and caregivers can ask recognize a change or delay in development.

Different names for autism

Some professionals may refer to autism by a different name, such as autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), classic autism or Kanner autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) or high-functioning autism (HFA).