All about autism

Autism is a developmental disorder officially known as Autism Spectrum disorder. It's causes are unknown, and it's main symptoms are repetitive behaviour and having trouble with communication and social interaction. There are different levels of severity and while there’s no cure for autism, it's symptoms can be managed with a range of different therapies.

Signs this may be a problem:

  • Having trouble communicating
  • Having trouble fitting in or socialising
  • Engaging in repetitive behaviour
  • Being fixated on particular topics or activities

blurry couple on train platform

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly known as ‘autism’, is a broad, umbrella term that covers four developmental disorders (disorders that interfere with the normal development of a child, in terms of things like social skills and learning abilities) which used to be recognised as their own independent disorders:

  • Autistic disorder – a more severe autism often diagnosed before the age of 3, where a person finds it really hard to communicate and interact with others, and typically has limited interests.

  • Asperger’s syndrome – a milder form of autism often detected later in life, where it’s difficult to socialise and communicate but speech develops normally. 

  • Childhood disintegrative disorder – a disorder where a person develops normally until a certain age (around 3) and then starts to lose certain skills, like speech or the ability to walk.

  • Pervasive Development disorder – when a person only has some of the characteristics of the above disorders. 
People that have autism have difficulty communicating, are socially withdrawn, and often show repetitive patterns of behaviour. There are different levels of severity of autism spectrum disorder; in some cases it’s really obvious that a person doesn’t have typical social skills, while in other people it’s much less noticeable.  

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism isn’t known, but the most recent research has shown that family history and genetics are big factors. It hasn’t been confirmed whether environmental factors (such as problems during pregnancy) or social factors (such as a person’s upbringing) play a role in triggering autism spectrum disorder. 

Signs and symptoms of autism

More severe forms of autism are usually recognised in early childhood, but some people with autism are not diagnosed until later in life, such as in their teens, or early twenties, particularly if they have a mild form of the disorder. 

Signs of autism spectrum disorder that are usually picked up in early childhood include:

  • A lack of smiling and eye contact
  • Delayed communication. For young children this means having delayed speech development, and not vocalising or pointing
  • Not responding to their name
  • A lack of age appropriate social skills
  • Getting  upset easily if there is a change in normal routine

As a person gets older, common symptoms and signs that a person may have a milder form of autism include:

  • Being unable to make or keep friends
  • Finding it difficult to hold normal conversations
  • Using language in an unusual way
  • Using repetitive language or behaviours, like continuously flapping their hands
  • Being inflexible, particularly when it comes to routine
  • Lack of social or imaginative play
  • Obsession with particular objects or subjects
Keep in mind that someone with autism spectrum disorder may not have all of these symptoms – everyone experiences autism differently. 

What to do about it

There’s no cure for autism, however, there are a range of therapies that are used to help manage the symptoms of autism. These include:

  • Social skills training which involves developing your social skills so that you’re better prepared for social situations.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This helps a person manage emotions and repetitive routines.
  • Physical therapy, which can help with co-ordination.
  • Speech therapy, which teaches skills to help someone speak more clearly.
  • Family or group therapy to help support someone with autism and help reduce stress in a person’s home life.
  • Special therapies, such as Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which helps families slowly adapt routines and difficult behaviours.
Medication is also sometimes used to treat depression or anxiety symptoms which can occur at the same time as autism. 

The earlier that autism is diagnosed, the greater chance that difficulties in learning and social interaction can be reduced although the long term outcome depends on the type of disorder and how severe the autism is . However, symptoms can still be managed even if a person isn’t diagnosed until they are older. 

Any treatment plan to identify, treat and manage symptoms of autism should be made in consultation with doctors and other health professionals such as psychologists.

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
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