Also called

  • ASD

Summary

  • The term autism spectrum disorder includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PPD-NOS). 
  • People on the autism spectrum find communication and socialising difficult.
  • People on the autism spectrum like routine and predictability. 
  • All people on the autism spectrum are unique. 
  • Vaccinations do not cause autism. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects a person’s ability to interact with the world around them. ASD has wide-ranging levels of severity and varying characteristics. No two people on the autism spectrum are alike.

The term autism spectrum disorder includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PPD-NOS). 

ASD is a neuro-developmental disability thought to have neurological or genetic causes (or both). However, the cause is not yet fully understood and there is no cure. A person on the autism spectrum has difficulties in some areas of their development, but other skills may develop typically.

ASD affects around 1 in 100 to 1 in 110 people of school age, with males being around four times more likely to be affected than females.

People on the autism spectrum have difficulties in the two main areas of:

  • social communication and interaction
  • restricted or repetitive behaviours, interests and activities. 

Communication for people on the autism spectrum

People on the autism spectrum often have difficulty with communication. They may have difficulty expressing their needs. Some people on the autism spectrum never develop language, while others might have good verbal language skills.

For those who do develop language, they may have difficulties using appropriate grammar and vocabulary, and in constructing meaningful sentences. They may misunderstand words, interpret them literally or not understand them at all. Other people’s feelings and emotions can be difficult to understand. 

Social interaction for people on the autism spectrum

People on the autism spectrum can find social skills and social communication very difficult. 

This may mean that they appear disinterested in others, ‘aloof’ or unsure of how to engage in social interactions. They may have difficulty using or interpreting non-verbal communication such as eye contact, gestures and facial expressions, or appear disinterested in the experiences and emotions of others. 

Establishing and maintaining friendships can be challenging for some people on the autism spectrum. 

Some people on the autism spectrum appear to be withdrawn and can become isolated – others try very hard to be sociable, but may not seem to get it right. There is a range of help available, including assessment, education programs and family support. 

Characteristics of ASD

There is a range of behaviours commonly linked with ASD. These may include:

  • language – absent, delayed or abnormal developmental patterns 
  • play – isolated, repetitive, a preference for predictable play, difficulty with imaginative play, such as pretending that a box is a boat or a stick is a horse
    body movements – stereotypical behaviour, such as flapping and toe walking, and other behaviours that may cause self-injury, such as hand biting
  • restricted or obsessive behaviour – with favourite topics, objects, places, people or activities
  • rituals and routines – these bring some order to chaos and confusion. A change to routine can result in the person displaying high levels of stress, anxiety or acting out
  • tantrums – can be a way to express extreme confusion, stress, anxiety, anger and frustration when unable to express their emotions in another way
  • sensory processing differences – difficulties processing certain sounds, colours, tastes, smells and textures. People may seek and avoid particular sensations. Some people will have difficulty with discriminating sensory information too, for example hot versus cold.

Assessment for ASD

There is no medical test for diagnosing ASD. ASD is diagnosed through observation by a multidisciplinary team of health professionals.

Diagnosis of ASD in children

ASD in children is diagnosed through observation by a multidisciplinary team of the following health professionals:

  • paediatrician
  • psychologist or psychiatrist
  • speech pathologist.

Some children will show signs of ASD by the age of two and will be diagnosed then. Other may be diagnosed when they are older. The earlier ASD can be diagnosed the sooner therapy can begin. Early intervention has been shown to improve outcomes for children on the autism spectrum. 

Diagnosis of ASD in adults

It is not unusual for people on the autism spectrum to have reached adulthood without a diagnosis. 

Sometimes people will discover some information about ASD that makes them think ‘That sounds like me.’ They may then choose to talk to a health professional for a diagnosis, or they may not. 

You may choose to seek a diagnosis for suspected ASD if:

  • you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and/or intellectual disability during childhood or adolescence, but think that you may have ASD
  • you have struggled with feeling socially isolated and different
  • your child or another family member has been diagnosed with ASD and some of the characteristics of autism sound familiar to you.

If you wish to seek an assessment for ASD, you can:

  • talk to your GP – who may refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist with experience in the assessment and diagnosis of autism
  • talk to a psychologist with experience in the assessment and diagnosis of autism (you do not need a referral from your GP to see a psychologist).

A psychologist or psychiatrist with experience in the assessment and diagnosis of autism will ask you about your childhood, and experiences at school and as an adult. They may also do some psychological or psychiatric testing. A speech therapist may also be consulted to assess your social communication skills. All of this information will be used to help make a diagnosis.

If you are diagnosed with ASD, you may feel relieved to know why you feel or behave the way you do. A diagnosis may also help you and your family to understand and cope with the challenges you face.

Education programs for people on the autism spectrum

The educational needs of students on the autism spectrum vary greatly. Intensive, specialised programs may be desirable for some students, while other students may be suited to mainstream programs. It will depend on the student’s learning need.

Information about primary and secondary schooling for children on the autism spectrum can be found on the Amaze website.

Family support for people on the autism spectrum

The family members (parents and siblings) of someone on the autism spectrum are also likely to need some support. Having a child on the autism spectrum can have a significant effect on parents, who may react to the diagnosis in a variety of ways, including relief, shock, grief, anger and guilt. 

Feelings of stress, confusion and anxiety are also common in parents who are caring for a child on the autism spectrum. It can be valuable for parents to consider joining a support group or participating in counselling.

For more information visit the Better Health Channel page Autism spectrum disorder – tips for parents.

No link between ASD and immunisation

Any link between immunisation and ASD has been completely discredited

During the 1990s, concern in the community about a possible link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and ASD was generated by the findings of research (known as the Wakefield study) conducted in London in 1998. The Wakefield study has since been discredited and withdrawn by the journal that originally published it. Dr Wakefield’s registration as a doctor in the United Kingdom has also been cancelled. 

Concerns have also been raised about thiomersal (also known as thimerosal), a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines. Concern about child safety prompted researchers around the world to investigate any possible link between the MMR vaccine, other vaccines and ASD. Extensive research conducted globally for a decade did not establish any link between vaccines and ASD. 

Despite this finding, as a precaution, it has been withdrawn from the standard childhood vaccines in Australia and many other countries.

Where to get help

References

More information

Behavioural conditions

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Last updated: March 2017

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