This page is an introductory guide intended to answer some common questions about autism, autism spectrum disorder and Asperger syndrome.
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Though a disability, autism is a different way of experiencing the world, not an illness to be “cured”.
Many autistic people view it with pride as an essential part of their identity.
On this page:
- What is autism?
- What causes autism?
- Traits of autism
- More traits of autism
- Early signs of autism in children
- Is autism a disability?
- Getting support
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disability that affects someone from birth and lasts for their lifetime.
It affects how they communicate, experience and interact with the world around them.
What causes autism?
It’s not clear what causes autism. It may be caused by genetic and environmental factors affecting the way the brain develops.
Can autism be cured?
No, autism is a different way of seeing and experiencing the world. It’s not an illness or disease that can be treated or cured.
Autistic people can live independent and fulfilled lives.
Some autistic people need little or no support. Others may need support from their parents, carers or teachers every day.
Like everyone else, autistic people can be good at some things and struggle with other things.
Autistic people can have any level of intelligence. They can be successful in friendships, relationships, and in their careers.
Does autism run in families?
Autism can affect people in the same family. So it may sometimes be passed on to a child by their parents.
More research is needed to understand the genetics that may play a part in autism.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism has had many names over the years. Autism spectrum disorder is now the medical term – or diagnosis – most likely to be used.
The term “autism spectrum” is used because autism has a range of characteristics. Autistic people may share some traits, but also be very different from one another.
What’s the difference between Asperger syndrome and autism?
The term “Asperger syndrome” was first used in the 1980s. It was generally applied to autistic people who were verbal and did not have learning disabilities. Asperger syndrome is no longer used as a diagnosis.
Many people who would previously have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome are now diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder instead.
Some people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome might still refer to themselves that way. Others might use the word “autistic”. How any autistic person chooses to identify is up to them.
Traits of autism
While characteristics do vary from person to person, autism is usually diagnosed by looking at three key areas:
- Social communication and interaction.
- Repetitive behaviour.
- Sensory issues.
Social communication and interaction
Autistic people might have difficulties with social communication and interaction in many different ways.
Some autistic people find it harder to interpret and respond to all aspects of spoken language and body language at the same time. They need more time to process information and respond.
They can also struggle to understand the tone of what other people say, such as humour, sarcasm or irony. They tend to prefer literal communication.
Sometimes, they repeat what other people say to them. This is called “echolalia”.
Some autistic people use little or no speech or have delayed language development. They may communicate using pictures, sounds, gestures or other methods.
Find out more about different ways of communicating.
Socially, we use lots of rules, with different rules for different situations. Autistic people can find these rules hard to remember or understand. They may find socialising with others confusing or tiring.
At times, their reactions may appear insensitive, “strange” or socially inappropriate. This can make it hard to form friendships and may lead to isolation and loneliness.
The world can be chaotic and unpredictable. Many autistic people prefer to have routines and structure.
Repetitive behaviour can help an autistic person to:
- Control their emotions.
- Manage situations.
- Reduce stress or anxiety.
- Find comfort or joy.
- Allow them to get on with their day.
An autistic person might want to always walk or run the same route, play with the same toy, watch the same episode of TV on repeat or eat the same food every day.
Many autistic people show repetitive behaviour called “self-stimulating behaviour”, or “stimming”.
Stimming can look like:
- Hand flapping.
- Rocking back and forth.
- Banging their head.
- Twirling pens or other objects.
- Opening and closing doors.
- Listening to the same song or music on repeat.
- Repeating words or phrases.
- Making vocal sounds, tapping their ears or snapping their fingers.
- Licking or chewing things that aren’t edible.
Generally, you shouldn’t try to stop an autistic person’s stimming. But be aware that they can sometimes hurt themselves, for example by head-banging or scratching.
Autistic people process information from their senses differently.
They can be under- or over-sensitive to lights, colours, sounds, smells, taste, touch and temperature. These can be uncomfortable or even painful.
For example, music in bars and restaurants can be unbearable. Workplaces, schools and public spaces such as shopping centres can be overwhelming.
This can affect how they interact with their environment and other people.
Their balance can also be affected and they can feel pain more intensely than other people do.
Some autistic people prefer:
- Not to be touched or hugged.
- To have firm touch or tight hugs.
- To eat specific foods only.
- To wear ear defenders outside.
- To wear sunglasses indoors.
More traits of autism
Beyond the diagnostic criteria, the autism community have created terms for the experiences they have as autistic people. These include “special interests”, “meltdowns” and “shutdowns”.
Many autistic people are intensely focused on special interests, often from a fairly young age. These bring them great joy and can last for life or change over time.
A special interest could be anything. It could be a member of a boyband, a historical event or a form of transport.
Autistic people may become experts in their special interests, and often like to share their knowledge.
Being highly focused helps many autistic people to achieve academically and in the workplace. But they can become so immersed in their special interests that they forget about other areas of life.
Meltdowns are extreme expressions of emotion that happen when an autistic person gets overwhelmed. This can look like a panic attack, or a tantrum.
It’s important to remember that meltdowns are not tantrums. They are very distressing for the autistic person, who has lost control of their behaviour.
Meltdowns can be brought on by triggers like:
- Changes in routine.
- Breakdowns in communication.
- Being overwhelmed by sensory input (for example, loud noises or too many demands).
An autistic person having a meltdown might cry, shout or scream. They might also lash out by hitting, kicking or biting objects, themselves and others.
Meltdowns look different for everyone. For most, they will be very draining, and leave the person very tired afterwards.
Shutdowns are another way that autistic people might respond to being overwhelmed. This is when the autistic person goes quiet or “switches off”.
The person might not seem “like themselves”. If they are usually verbal, they might start struggling to form sentences, or even go non-verbal. This is because their difficulties with processing can become more pronounced than usual.
Often, an autistic person experiencing a shutdown will want to be alone. They might want to lie down and might avoid any sensory input like light or sound.
Early signs of autism in children
Signs in toddlers
- They don’t respond when their name is called. (This could also be a sign of hearing loss.)
- They don’t draw your attention to things by pointing.
- They might not return your smiles or eye contact.
- They don’t talk as much as other children, and/or they often repeat phrases or words.
- They show repetitive behaviour, like flapping their hands or rocking.
Signs in older children
- They may like an unchanging daily routine and get very upset if it does change.
- They might like to line up their toys. They generally prefer not to play “pretend” games.
- They find it hard to make friends or prefer to be alone.
- They can get intensely interested in particular topics or activities.
- They experience a lot of anxiety or stress.
- They take things literally, for example, they don’t understand idioms like “miss the boat”.
- They may not want to be physically touched.
- Certain clothing or food textures cause difficulties and can’t be tolerated.
There are many potential signs of autism. Autistic traits look different for everyone.
Autism in girls and boys
Research suggests that four times as many boys are diagnosed with autism as girls. But the number of autistic girls is likely to be much higher.
Autistic girls may be quieter than boys and express their autistic traits in more subtle ways.
Is autism a disability?
If you’re autistic, it’s up to you if you identify as disabled.
However, under the Equality Act 2010, autistic people meet the definition of a disabled person. This act is in place to make sure that disabled people have equal access and opportunity without discrimination.
At Sense, we support the social model of disability – the understanding that disability is something created by society.
Find out more about the social model of disability.
Is autism a learning disability?
Autism is not a learning disability, but some autistic people do also have a learning disability.
This may make it harder for them to look after themselves and they may need help with daily life.
If you think your child might be autistic, speak to your GP, a health visitor (for children under five), or any other healthcare professional your child sees. Alternatively, you could speak to special educational needs (SENCO) staff at your child’s school.
Getting diagnosed can help your child get any extra support they might need.
You can also find out about the support system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and the different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
To find out about benefits, grants and other financial support you might be entitled to, including help with energy, food, travel and leisure costs, please visit our Benefits and money section.
Ask us how we can support you
If you or a loved one is autistic, and would like some support, get in touch with our friendly team.
This content was last reviewed in November 2022. We’ll review it again in 2024.