What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder?

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Some people on the autism spectrum appear to be withdrawn and can become isolated – others try very hard to be sociable, but may not seem to get it right.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.

(Better Health Victoria)

Assessment for ASD

There is no medical test for diagnosing ASD. ASD is diagnosed through observation by a multidisciplinary team of health professionals. Health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, to diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The latest version of the Manual is DSM-5. It reflects the current understanding of ASD, based on research. The DSM-5 made some key changes to the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. There’s now a single diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder which replaces the different subdivisions: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified. There’s also a separate diagnosis of social communication disorder.

Click here for diagnosis information from – Raising Children Network