What is it?
Autism is a term used to describe individuals who have varying degrees of difficulties in the following areas:
- Understanding and use of non-verbal and verbal communication
- Ability to interpret social behaviour which in turn affects interaction with others
- Thinking and behaving flexibly
These areas are known as the "Triad of Impairments" and are used for formal diagnosis. The different varying degrees of difficulties that individuals can have means that it will often be referred to as the autism spectrum.
The World Health Organisation uses the broader definition of Pervasive Developmental Conditions (PDD), recognizing the breadth of the impact of these difficulties on most aspects of an individual’s life.
Understanding and use of non-verbal and verbal communication
The ability to be able to understand language in all its forms including intention, emotion, relevance, context and consequence can be affected for individuals on the autism spectrum. They can also have difficulty understanding the meaning of gestures, facial expression or tone of voice, and language can be interpreted very literally.
Ability to interpret social behaviour which in turns affects interaction with others
Individuals on the autism spectrum can have difficulties understanding and interpreting other people’s behaviour, especially in social situations where different responses are needed in order to suit the occasion. They may find it difficult to understand why people are so concerned about what other people think of them or know when people are being sarcastic or making a joke. They may not understand the consequences of their actions on the people they meet.
Thinking and behaving flexibly
They may also have difficulty knowing how to react or respond to people or situations that are new to them or vary, even slightly, from previous experiences. Small changes may mean they will need to relearn how to deal with a specific situation or undertake a task.
Each person is unique
In supporting individuals on the autism spectrum it is important to understand that everyone is different and any of the following may also impact on the way in which people are affected:
- Severity of the autism
- Level of learning ability
- Level of language ability
- Past experiences
- Personal qualities
- Other health factors, such as physical differences or mental health issues
There are many research projects currently being undertaken to look at the causes of autism and researchers believe that there may be a variety of causes. Further information can be accessed from the following websites:
It is estimated that up to 91 per 10,000 people are on the autism spectrum. Some 20 per 10,000 have autism and some learning difficulties and 71 per 10,000 have autism and will have no learning difficulties (Information from the National Autistic Society).
Not all people with autism will need to live in a supported environment, however, nearly all will need specialist help or input at some point during their life.
There are people who are able to live in the community but who are isolated and not receiving any support as their needs are not recognised. Some people have told us that living alone like this they feel vulnerable, exposed and insecure. There is currently no remit for local authorities to address their needs
A careful diagnosis will help the person, their family, carers and friends to understand and enable the appropriate educational, therapeutic, and support services to be identified and provided.
An accurate, early diagnosis may be difficult to obtain and it is always worth seeking a medical assessment from professionals who have knowledge of autism. Confusion with other language/learning conditions such as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Condition is not uncommon, especially in younger children.