What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. Without the right support, it can have a profound – sometimes devastating – effect on individuals and families. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live independent lives but others may need a lifetime of specialist support.
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What do people with autism generally experience difficulty with?
Social interaction. This includes recognising and understanding other people’s feelings and managing their own. Not understanding how to interact with other people can make it hard to form friendships.
Social communication. This includes using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.
Social imagination. This includes the ability to understand and predict other people’s intentions and behaviour and to imagine situations outside of their own routine. This may be accompanied by a narrow repetitive range of activities.
People with Asperger syndrome generally have fewer problems with speech, although they may still have trouble understanding some forms of speech such as metaphors, People with Asperger syndrome are often of average, or above average, intelligence and do not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities associated with autism, but they may have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia or other conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and epilepsy.
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What are the other characteristics of autism?
Need for routine and difficulty with change The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, who often have a narrow, repetitive range of activities and may prefer to have a fixed daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day. People with autism may not be comfortable with the idea of change, but can cope well if they are prepared for it in advance.
Adherence to rules It can be difficult for a person with autism to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it.
Sensory issues People with autism may experience some form of sensory sensitivity which can appear in one or more of the five senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. A person’s senses may be intensified (hyper-sensitive) or under-sensitive (hypo-sensitive). 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.
Special interests Many people with autism have intense special 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.
Learning disabilities Some people with autism may have learning disabilities, meaning that they may not learn things as quickly as other people. As with autism, people can have different ‘degrees’ of learning disability. A learning disability can affect all aspects of someone’s life: from studying in school, to learning how to wash or make a meal.
Other related conditions Other conditions are sometimes associated with autism. These may include learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or physical difficulties such as epilepsy.
Autism (including Asperger syndrome) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how people make sense of the world around them. Without the right support, autism can have a profound – sometimes devastating – effect on individuals and families. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism are able to live independent lives but others may need a lifetime of specialist support.
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Are there any other names for autism?
Some professionals may refer to autism by a different name. These names might include autism spectrum disorder or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), classic autism (sometimes known as Kanner autism), pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) or high-functioning autism (HFA). Asperger syndrome is a form of autism.
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How common is autism? Autism is much more common than most people think. There are over half a million people in the UK with autism – that’s around 1 in 100 people.
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 changes in brain development. Autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing, their social circumstances and is not the fault of the individual with the condition.
Who can be affected by autism? People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can have autism, although it appears to affect more men than women. It is a lifelong condition: children with autism grow up to become adults with autism.
What does it mean when people say that autism is a ‘hidden’ disability? It can be hard to create awareness of autism as people with the condition do not ‘look’ disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults often find that they are misunderstood.
What do people mean when they talk about ‘having a diagnosis’? A diagnosis is the formal identification of autism, usually by a health professional such as a paediatrician, clinical psychologist or psychiatrist who are specialised in autism spectrum disorders. Having a diagnosis is helpful for two reasons: it helps people with autism (and their families) to understand why they may experience certain difficulties and what they can do to make life easier. It can help people to access specialist services and support.
Many people are diagnosed when they are children. A child’s GP can refer them to a specialist who is able to make a diagnosis. Some people with autism do not receive a diagnosis until they are adults. This is often because they have worked hard to cope with life and to ‘fit in’, and their condition hasn’t been recognised. A GP or other health professionals, such as a psychiatrist, can refer adults. Diagnosticians can be searched for on the Autism Services Directory, our online database at: www.autismdirectory.org.uk
Is there a cure for autism? At present, there is no ‘cure’ for autism. However, there is a range of interventions –methods of enabling learning and development – which people may find to be helpful. Many of these are detailed on the NAS website.
I’ve seen the film “Rain Man” - do all people with autism have special abilities? No. People with autism who have an extraordinary talent are referred to as 'autistic savants'. Savants are rare: current thinking holds that at most 1 or 2 in 200 individuals with autism might have a genuine savant talent. However, there is no reliable frequency estimate as there is still no register of people with autism in the UK.
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The National Autistic Society (NAS) Autism Helpline provides impartial, confidential information, advice and support for people with autism, their families and professionals. The Helpline number is 0845 070 4004 and it is staffed by advisers who are able to talk about the range of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and related issues in depth. The Helpline is open from 10am until 4pm, Monday to Friday, and all calls are charged at local rate and will cost no more than 4p per minute from BT landlines. Calls from mobile phones may cost more.
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