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8-minute read

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects how people behave and interact with the world around them. It may be mild, moderate or severe.

In people with autism, the brain does not develop the same way it does in most people. Autism is not a mental health problem or an intellectual disability, although some people with autism will also have those problems.

Doctors used to think that Asperger's syndrome and autism were separate conditions. They now think that they are all part of one condition, called autism spectrum disorder or ASD.

About 1 in 150 Australians is 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 2 or 3 years. In some people the diagnosis comes much later.

The main features of autism are difficulty with 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.

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 has treatment, the more likely it is they’ll develop the communication, social and life skills needed for a good quality of life.

What are the symptoms of autism?

The behaviours associated with autism fall into two broad areas: impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests.

The common signs and symptoms of autism are:

  • lack of social or emotional exchanges like pointing, smiling, showing you things
  • lack of non-verbal communication such as nodding and shaking head, using hand gestures
  • difficulty developing and maintaining relationships appropriate to the age, such as peer play, lack of close friends
  • delayed expressed speech and understanding of speech
  • lack of eye contact when speaking
  • loss of language skills at any age
  • excessively following routines, patterns or behaviour, and becoming distressed at changes
  • stereotyped or repetitive speech, movements or use of objects, such as rolling wheels before eyes, flapping hands, toe walking
  • strongly reacting to sensory input such as sound, pain or textures
  • restricted or fixated interests such as only playing with certain toys or discussing certain topics
  • being aggressive toward other people or toward self

What causes autism?

Autism is caused by the way that the brain develops. If someone in your family has autism, it is more likely that other people in the family will also have autism.

Research is also looking at the role of the environment in triggering autism, such as viral infections, complications during pregnancy and air pollutants.

There is no evidence that autism can be caused by vaccinations, foods or other lifestyle factors, or by person’s cultural or social surroundings.

When should I see my doctor?

It's important to seek help if you are concerned you or your child has autism. Early intervention offers the best outcomes, no matter what type of autism a child has.

There may be different signs of autism in different ages.

In the first year, a baby with autism might not be interested in other people and may not make eye contact with their parents. They may not smile or gesture like other babies.

As toddlers, children with autism might not respond to their name, or might focus on activities like lining up toys. They may not be interested in playing with other children or might speak in a monotone way.

Older children with autism might have difficulties in social situations, following instructions or making friends.

Sometimes people are not diagnosed with autism until they are adults. They may spend their lives feeling like they don’t quite fit in. They may have difficulties with relationships, work and social situations. They may also have mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.

Autism Awareness Australia provides information about signs of autism in people at different ages.

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How is autism diagnosed?

If someone is thought to have autism, their doctor will often refer them to a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, paediatrician or psychologist, to confirm the diagnosis.

The specialist uses a set of standard tests to make a diagnosis. To be diagnosed with autism, someone must have lasting difficulties in social communication and social interaction in multiple situations, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities. These symptoms must have been evident from early life and significantly affect the person’s life.

Autism is classified into different levels:

  • Level 1: people requiring support
  • Level 2: people requiring substantial support
  • Level 3: people more severely affected and requiring very substantial support

Children can usually be diagnosed at around 2, but sometimes symptoms are subtle and children are not diagnosed until they start school or even until they become adults.

How is autism managed?

If your child is diagnosed with autism, you will be guided through the various treatment options. There are education programs and support services available for children with autism and their parents or caregivers from a number of organisations such as Autism Spectrum Australia.

Treatments used to manage autism are best started as early in a person’s life as possible. Specific symptoms and social skills can be improved with the right support and programs. Because everyone with autism is different, the best results are obtained from a treatment program specifically tailored to their individual needs.

Language and social skills are taught through intensive educational programs and behavioural therapies. Speech pathology focuses on developing communication and social skills. Occupational therapy concentrates on sensory motor development, such as learning play and fine motor skills, as well as how to cope in social situations.

Public and private schooling options are available for children with autism. Find out more about schooling options on the Autism Awareness website.

Sometimes claims are made about treatments that are misleading. Avoid treatments that offer a ‘cure’ or ‘recovery’ as there is no evidence to support these claims. Ensure that the treatments and supports you choose are informed by evidence.

If someone with autism is diagnosed as having a mental illness, they can access treatment under the Better Access to Mental Health Care scheme through a doctor. This is funded through Medicare.

Autism Awareness Australia provides self-care tips and helpful links and resources.

Support for carers

Depending on how severe the autism is, caring for a person with autism can be a lifelong commitment for parents and carers.

If you are caring for someone with autism, you can find practical information and useful resources on Carer Gateway. You can also learn more about carers' support and services in your state or territory through Carers Australia.

Misconceptions about autism

There are many misconceptions that make it harder for people with autism to have their condition recognised and receive the support they need.

Here is the truth about some common misconceptions around autism:

  • Autism is NOT caused by vaccination.
  • Autism is NOT caused by eating certain foods.
  • People with autism DO like to socialise and make friends — they just find this difficult.
  • People with autism DO have emotions — they just might display them differently.
  • Most people with autism ARE able to learn, even if they may progress more slowly than some others.
  • It IS possible for people with autism to change their behaviour.
  • Autism is NOT caused by bad parenting.
  • Not all people with autism have savant skills, like Rain Man.
  • Not all people with autism have an intellectual disability.
  • Autism is NOT a mental illness, though people with autism have higher rates of mental illness such as depression and anxiety.

Personal stories — video

Visit to watch the full film. An initiative of Autism Awareness Australia.

Resources and support

Having an autistic child or sibling can be a challenging experience at times, but there are support services available such as counselling and respite.

For more information about autism spectrum disorders, see:

For help with how to get support and services, see the Raising Children Network's autism therapy and service finder.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2020

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