Find out about this spectrum condition, how it affects people differently and the approaches and interventions available to help support people with autism.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way a person’s brain works and the way they communicate and make sense of the world. As a result, they may need support in some areas.
Autism is a spectrum condition, which means that people are affected in different ways. While many people with autism share common characteristics, everybody’s experience of autism is unique to them.
It’s important to remember that everyone experiences autism differently. Just like anyone else, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
There are some characteristics that are often shared by people with autism5, however, these may be noticeable to different degrees depending on each individual.
Autism is something people are born with or that first appears at a young age, so the first signs are often noticed early in childhood.
In young children, early signs often include not responding to their name, avoiding eye contact, not returning smiles, being slow to start speaking or not speaking at all, making repetitive movements such as flapping hands or rocking, experiencing strong responses to taste, sound and smell and having meltdowns that can seem like temper tantrums.
Older children may also find it hard to express how they feel and to identify with others and they may start developing obsessive interests and find it hard to make friends.
Research into the causes of autism is yet to provide any definitive conclusion, but it does suggest that both genetics and environment may play a role.
Nobody knows whether autism has a cause, but it is known that autism is not caused by vaccines, bad parenting, diet or lifestyle, and it is not a contagious condition that can be passed from one person to another.
Autism is a lifelong condition, but while there is no cure, the effects of autism can often be well managed with the right support in place. The section below on treatment and medication explains more about the range of approaches that can help people with autism.
Autism in itself does not lower life expectancy. However, people with autism do tend to die younger than the general population. A study by Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published in The British Journal of Psychiatry8 showed that the leading causes of early death include epilepsy, which people with autism may be vulnerable to, and suicide, which is linked to higher rates of mental health problems among autistic people.
While autism is often diagnosed in children and young people, some people are not diagnosed until they reach adulthood. This may be because they have learnt ‘mimicking behaviour’ to cover the outward signs or because another related diagnosis was made in childhood, while autism went undetected.
Depending on your age, your route to diagnosis will be slightly different.
Autism is usually diagnosed after an assessment which involves a range of tests. These may take place in one long assessment or over a number of appointments. The tests vary between children and adults.
The tests for children include a range of observations to see how a child plays and interacts, and the assessment team may visit schools or nurseries to see how they behave there. They will also read through reports from the child’s doctor, school or nursery and talk to parents or carers in depth about their child’s development.
Assessments for adults involve looking at doctors’ reports and questionnaires that the adult being assessed will be asked to complete. Assessors may also want to get a better picture of how the adult behaved as a child, by talking to people they were close to in childhood.
Autism is a lifelong disability and there is no cure or set treatment. It’s better to think of treatment in terms of support – there are a range of approaches that can be used to help people with autism manage their difficulties and live life to the full.
Because autism is a complex condition that affects people differently, the approaches will depend on the individual’s needs and may well change over the course of their life.
Many autistic people also have co-existing conditions, such as a learning disability, mental health problems, epilepsy, sleep problems and digestive issues. Certain treatments or support methods may be helpful for these and should always be monitored carefully.