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What Is Autism?

Find out how autism affects individuals on the spectrum.

What is it?

Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.


All autistic individuals are affected in some way in the following areas:

Social communication

The ability to be able to understand communication in all its forms can be affected for individuals on the autism spectrum. Autistic individuals may have difficulty with interaction, non-verbal communication and maintaining relationships with others. Commonly reported difficulties can include understanding other people’s intentions and emotions, reading situations (this can be especially apparent in social situations where different responses are needed in order to suit the context), interpreting other’s body language, facial expression or tone of voice and the content of what others are saying. Language can be interpreted very literally and an autistic individual may find it difficult to understand sarcasm, irony and jokes. Equally a non-autistic person may find it difficult to understand the communication of an autistic person – they may not be able to understand their humour, read their body language or interact in a way which is meaningful to the autistic person.

Repetitive behaviours, restricted interests and sensory differences.

Having to face the unknown and deal with a situation which they have not encountered before or which will vary, even slightly, from previous experiences can be very stressful for an autistic person. Small changes may mean they will need to relearn how to cope with a specific situation or undertake a task. Therefore an adherence to sameness and repetition is very reassuring. It is common for autistic individuals to have specific routines and rituals. To use speech, movements and objects repetitively. Autistic individuals are also likely to have specific, intense interests which they can have an incredible passion and concentration for.


Individuals on the autistic spectrum will also have difficulties with sensory processing and integration. We are processing sensory information from the world around us all the time through hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching and moving. Autistic individuals may be under or over sensitive to any of these sensations which can result in a huge range of difficulties. For example finding certain noises, smells or touch to be intensely uncomfortable or even painful; struggling with eating certain foods; feeling restless or off balance all the time. Individuals may often feel overwhelmed and experience ‘sensory overload’.

Each person is unique

Autism is a spectrum condition. It is important to understand that everyone is different and being autistic affects people in different ways. Any of the following may also impact on the way in which autism presents:

  • Level of learning ability

  • Level of language ability

  • Past experiences

  • Personal qualities

  • Health factors

  • Mental health issues

  • Additional conditions

Autistic individuals can need different levels of support depending on how they are affected. 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. With the right support all individuals can enjoy meaningful and inclusive lives.



There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that's more than 1 in 100. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.

(Information from the National Autistic Society).



A careful diagnosis will help the person, their family, supporters 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, Social Communication Disorder and Attention Deficit Conditions is not uncommon, especially in younger children.

For further information on diagnosis speak to your GP or contact our Family Support Officers:

For children -

For adults -



Autism is a lifelong condition. It cannot be “treated” or “cured” and the idea of this is offensive to many, for whom being autistic is part of their identity.

The cause of autism is a highly researched field. There is no one identified cause, but researchers believe it is likely to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors which would influence or interrupt the typical development of the human brain and central nervous system.


Related conditions

It is not uncommon for autistic people to also have one or more additional conditions alongside their autism, or for other conditions to closely resemble autism, such as:

  • Epilepsy

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

  • Hearing or visual impairment

  • Learning disabilities

  • Physical disabilities

  • Other genetic conditions e.g. Down’s Syndrome

  • Gastrointestinal issues

  • Dyslexia

  • Dyspraxia

  • Mental health conditions

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


These can also be referred to as co-morbid or co-occurring conditions. This is an incredibly complex area of autism in that these related conditions can both have an effect on and be affected by a person’s autism.


Useful links

Further information can be accessed from the following websites:


National Autistic Society

TED talks - Autism - What We Know (& what we don't know yet)

Research Autism



Autism Alliance


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