Autism Diagnostic Research Centre
Tel: 023 8020 2631

What is autism?

Introduction

Autism can vary widely in severity from person to person and for this reason the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is often used.

Autism affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people. It can affect people in many different ways and to varying degrees.

Autism is mostly a 'hidden disability' - you can't tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance.

Many people with autism are of average, or above average, intelligence, but may have specific learning difficulties. These may include dyslexia and dyspraxia or other conditions such as epilepsy.

Autism is not a learning disability. Some people may have a dual diagnosis of autism and a learning disability.

Autism is not a mental illness. Some people may have a dual diagnosis of autism and a mental health problem such as anxiety or depression.

What causes autism?

Although many genetic and environmental causes have been proposed, what causes autism and how it occurs is not well understood. It is most likely a combination of factors that account for changes in the development of the brain.

Is there a cure?

There is no cure. However, as our understanding of the condition improves and the services available continue to develop, there are more opportunities for people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to reach their full potential.

What are the characteristics?

Although characteristics of autism can occur in the general population, autism is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than one single symptom. There is a triad of core symptoms – difficulty with social interaction, difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped behaviour, interests and activities.

How is autism diagnosed?

Making a diagnosis can be difficult, because autism varies widely from person to person. Sometimes difficulties may not be recognised and diagnosed until adulthood. The typical route for getting a diagnosis is to visit a GP. He or she can refer an individual to other health professionals who can carry out a thorough assessment.

There is no single diagnostic test for autism. A thorough diagnostic assessment, carried out by an experienced clinician, will include a review of the person’s developmental and family history, and a profile of their behaviour and abilities.

How does diagnosis help?

Some people see a formal diagnosis of autism as an unhelpful label. For others however, a diagnosis can help the individual, families, friends, partners, carers, professionals and colleagues to better understand and manage their needs and behaviour. It can also be the key needed to open the door to specialised support.

Adults with autism may feel a lack of social support, meaningful relationships, and future employment opportunities. With the right support and encouragement, people with autism can lead full and independent lives.