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Understanding autism

Autism spectrum disorder, commonly known as ASD, affects how people communicate and interact with others. It affects how they make sense of the world.

Autism is a developmental condition that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. People with ASD experience difficulties with communication, social interaction and restricted/repetitive interests and behaviours. These difficulties are often accompanied by behavioural challenges and sensory issues.

The term “spectrum” is used to emphasise that autism presents differently in every single person. People with autism have a wide range of challenges as well as abilities.

These difficulties might present as some (or all) of the following characteristics:

1) Social communication and interaction

  • Lack of social-emotional reciprocity – pointing, smiling, showing you things
  • Lack of non-verbal communication such as nodding and shaking head, using hand gestures
  • Difficulty in developing and maintaining relationships appropriate to developmental level, such as peer play, lack of close friends – this very much depends on the age
  • Delayed speech or unable to speak two words by age two
  • Lack of eye contact when speaking
  • Loss of language skills at any age

2) Restricted and repetitive behaviours:

  • Excessive adherence to routines, patterns or behaviour, distressed at changes
  • Stereotyped or repetitive speech, movements or use of objects, such as rolling wheels before eyes, flapping hands, toe walking
  • Hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input such as sound, pain or textures
  • Restricted or fixated interests such as only playing with certain toys or discussing certain topics
  • Aggressive toward other people or toward self

Autism was previously divided into various sub categories, such as Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Rett syndrome.  Now under the DSM 5 it all comes under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder.

We can typically diagnose a child at about 2 years of age, when it becomes apparent they are not meeting their developmental milestones.

Symptoms of autism can sometimes be subtle and may not become obvious until a child starts school or moves into adulthood.

Whilst there are some shared characteristics, it’s important to remember and respect that autism presents differently in different people.

Autism is not a physical disability so people on the spectrum look no different to their peers.  This can make it difficult for some people to understand why an autistic person might be behaving or reacting in a particular way.

Many people with ASD live completely independent lives, others need support in almost all aspects.

Let’s all aim to see each person with ASD for the person they are, and not for what we think their diagnosis means.