What is autism?

Mother and son playing on iPad

Definition of autism

Autism is a lifelong condition that impacts on social communication and the way a person thinks and interacts with their environment. The term ‘autism’ is often used interchangeably with the term “on the autism spectrum” or “autism spectrum disorder”. The word ‘spectrum’ is used because, while all individuals on the autism spectrum share two main areas of difficulty, their condition affects them in varying ways. The difficulties shared by people on the autism spectrum are described in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual – 5th Ed (DSM-5) as follows:

What are the characteristics of autism and how is it diagnosed?

Difficulties with social communication & social interaction across contexts, including:

  • Difficulties with social-emotional reciprocity
  • Problems with non-verbal communicative behaviours
  • Difficulties in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships

Restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

  • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects or speech (such as flapping or echolalia)
  • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualised patterns of verbal or nonverbal behaviour
  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity of focus
  • Hyper- or hypo- reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment

In addition, symptoms must be present in early childhood (but may not become apparent until social demands exceed limited capacities) and symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning.

How is a diagnosis of autism made?

There are no blood tests or genetic tests for autism, nor are there particular physical features that indicate that a person has autism. Rather, a diagnosis is made on the basis of behaviours observed by an experienced clinician (pediatrician, psychologist, speech pathologist or a combination of all of these), along with information about the person’s development. The clinician making a diagnosis looks for a pattern of behaviours across the areas mentioned above:

  • Social Communication– signs include difficulties developing speech and language; difficulties using language appropriately, including difficulties initiating and sustaining conversation; limited use of eye contact and other non-verbal forms of communication; difficulties developing relationships with peers – some young people are not interested in their peers, some are very interested but don’t know how to interact appropriately; difficulties understanding and responding to other people’s emotions; limited sharing of enjoyment or interests
  • Repetitive behaviours/restricted interests  - unusually intense or focused interests in particular objects, subjects or actions; unusual or repetitive movements and/or speech (including stereotyped language and echolalia); a strong need for sameness or adherence to routine; unusual sensory responses

For more information about these characteristics, plus the learning and sensory processing characteristics and how they impact on educating students on the autism spectrum, refer to the section How does autism impact on learning?