Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people behave and interact with the world around them. It may be mild, moderate or severe. The main features of autism are difficulty in social interactions and communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. Children or adults with autism may be highly intelligent, of normal intelligence or have learning difficulties.
Parents may notice that their child’s behaviour is unusual in the first few years of life. Early signs may include delayed speech, repetitive behaviours such as rocking or twirling, or spending hours focusing intently on one thing. Children with autism may lack interest in playing with other children, and in severe cases may show no interest in the surrounding world at all.
The umbrella term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ (ASD) now describes all levels of autism, from those individuals requiring support (level 1), those requiring substantial support (level 2) and those more severely affected and requiring very substantial support (level 3).
About 1 in 150 Australians are affected by autism, and boys are 4 times more likely to have it than girls. The symptoms are present in infancy, but may not be noticeable until the age of two or three years. In some people the diagnosis comes much later.
The causes of autism are not fully understood, but research suggests that there may be genetic factors or something in the environment involved.
People with autism can learn the skills needed to function independently or in a supportive environment. Research shows that the earlier a child is diagnosed and intervention implemented, the more likely it is they’ll develop the communication, social and life skills needed for a good quality of life.
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Last reviewed: September 2018