A Few Facts About Autism You May Not Know

Editor’s Note: This is National Autism Awareness Month in the US and yesterday, April 2nd, was the 8th annual World Autism Awareness Day. We hope this article will help improve both awareness and understanding of this challenging and increasingly common condition.

Autism is a serious and lifelong developmental disability. On its own, autism is not a learning disability or a mental health problem.

However, some people with autism have an accompanying learning disability, learning difficulty or mental health problem.

different types of apples against a white background and word autismAutism is a spectrum condition. This means that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, the condition affects each person differently.

One of the best known forms of autism is Asperger syndrome. People with the condition are often of average or above-average intelligence. They have fewer speech problems than people with other types of autism, but may find it difficult to understand and process language.

While some people with autism live independent lives, others may need a lifetime of specialist support. Autism can have a profound and sometimes devastating effect on individuals and families. However, getting the right support makes a substantial difference to the person who is diagnosed and their loved ones.

What Causes Autism?

There are over half a million people with autism in the UK – around 1 in every 100 people (In the US, more than 3.5 million people have autism, with 1 in 68 children being diagnosed*). If you include their families, autism touches the lives of over two million people each day.

The causes of autism are still being investigated. According to the National Autistic Society (NAS), there is strong evidence to suggest that autism can be caused by a variety of environmental or neurological factors, all of which affect brain development. There is also evidence to suggest that genetic factors are responsible for some forms of autism.

Read more about what may cause autism.

What we do know is that autism is not caused by a person’s upbringing and is not the fault of those with the condition.

There is no cure for autism. However, there are numerous interventions (learning and development techniques) that can help.

How Does Autism Affect People?

Autism affects the way a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.

Everyday life for people with autism can be confusing, frightening and lack meaning. They often find understanding and communicating with others particularly difficult, which can leave them feeling isolated.

People with autism may also experience some form of sensory sensitivity or a lack of sensitivity – for example, to sound, touch, taste, smell, lights or colour.

The Triad of Impairments

Those with the condition share three main areas of difficulty, which are sometimes called the triad of impairments.

Difficulty with Social Communication

People with autism have difficulty using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, as well as jokes and sarcasm. Some might not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They may understand what people say to them but prefer to use alternative forms of communication, such as sign language.

Difficulty with Social Interaction

Those with the condition have difficulty recognising and understanding people’s feelings and managing their own, They may, for example, stand too close to another person, prefer to be alone, behave inappropriately and may not seek comfort from another person. This can make it hard for those with the condition to make friends.

Difficulty with Social Imagination

People with autism have difficulty understanding and predicting other people’s intentions and behaviour, and imagining situations that are outside their own routine. This can mean they carry out a narrow, repetitive range of activities. A lack of social imagination should not be confused with lack of imagination. Many people with autism are very creative.

Other Related Characteristics of Autism

Love of Routines

The world can seem an unpredictable and confusing place to people with autism, which is why they often feel more comfortable with a fixed daily routine, so that they know what’s going to happen each day.

Sensory Sensitivity

People with autism may experience sensory sensitivity in one or more of the five senses – including sounds, sights and smells – which they can find stressful. A person’s senses are either intensified (hypersensitive) or lack sensitivity (hyposensitive). For more information on sensory sensitivity in autism, visit the NAS website.

Special Interests

Many people with autism have intense special interests, often from a young age. These can be anything, from art or music to trains and computers.

Learning Disabilities

People with autism may have learning disabilities that can affect all aspects of their life, from studying in school to learning how to wash themselves or make a meal.

Where Can I Get More Information?

In 2012, the NAS commissioned the largest ever survey into autism, to show what life is like in the UK for people affected by the condition. The survey looked at a wide variety of areas, from diagnosis and school life to employment and independent living. The results can be downloaded here, alongside personal stories from those living with autism.

For more information on autism, including getting a diagnosis and stories from people affected by the condition, read our advice on Living with autism.

You can also search for sources of autism help and support in your area.

Editor’s Note: * US statistics from the Autism Society.

Autism information and resources for the US can be found from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Autism Society, and Autism Speaks.

About the Author

NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk) is the UK’s biggest health website. It provides a comprehensive health information service to help put you in control of your healthcare.


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