Autism was once considered to be rare, but is now recognised as affecting about 1 in 100 of the population. This rise in prevalence over time reflects a much broader definition of autism as a spectrum disorder, changes in diagnostic criteria and improved diagnostic services, although there has also been much discussion of whether there has been any actual change in the rate at which it occurs.
The causes of autism are not known, but genetic and developmental factors are believed to play an important role. ASD is considered to be present from birth, although not usually evident at this stage. There is no ‘cure’ for autism, but there are many ways in which individuals with ASD can be helped and supported to reach their potential and live fulfilling lives.
It can be difficult for people to recognise autism and those with ASD may misdiagnosed or labelled as naughty, challenging, loners, eccentric, little professors, emotionally disturbed etc. These types of misunderstandings mean that people can present for diagnosis later in life rather than being diagnosed during childhood.
“All people have assets as well as challenges. There is no such thing as a stereotype"
It is now recognised that ASD is likely to be under diagnosed in females and that ASD may present differently in females.
"People with autism come in as many shapes and sizes as ‘people with pneumonia’. They have different races, social circumstances, intellectual levels, personalities and associated disorders. They should not be expected to conform to a highly specific prototype or to benefit from exactly the same kind of intervention, treatment or training. First and foremost they are people. It so happens that they are affected by the same (or similar) disorder but this does not make them blueprints of each other."
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder will have difficulties across three main areas.
In addition, individuals with ASD may differ from other people in relation to how they process information provided to them verbally or in writing, and their sensory processing may also be different. They may display patterns of restricted and repetitive behaviour.
The term “spectrum” is used to describe the different ways in which ASD affects people at different levels of cognitive ability and at different ages and stages of development.
In ASD both verbal and non-verbal communication skills may be affected. It can be difficult for a person with ASD to use language to communicate with others and to understand how other people use language. Some individuals with ASD will be non-verbal, others have more subtle difficulties with communication. This can present as:
People with ASD will have difficulty in understanding social signals or the social significance of behaviour. They will have difficulty in knowing these intuitively and they are hard to teach formally as social rules change with context and setting.
Difficulties with social interaction will depend on the age of the person, his/her developmental level and the severity of the disorder, but these difficulties continue into adulthood and throughout life although in some they become less obvious as their understanding and skills develop.
This can take the form of:
ASD is characterised by ritualistic behaviours, reliance on routines and extreme delay in, or absence of, social pretend play.
Difficulties can take the form of:
Some individuals with ASD are over or under sensitive to sensory stimuli which can pose great difficulties in their everyday lives. For example
It can be difficult to imagine how this is experienced but there are useful video simulations available online.
Visit the Sensory section for more details.