Autism is a developmental disability that can cause a complex range of behavioural symptoms and 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) includes several different disorders, including: classic autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder.
About one in 200 Australians are affected by autism, and the large majority are boys at over 80% of cases. The symptoms may be noticeable from the age of two, but usually a firm diagnosis can’t be made until a child reaches the age of three. In some people the diagnosis comes much later.
The causes of autism are not fully understood, but research suggests that there are genetic factors 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, the more likely it is they’ll develop the communication, social and life skills needed for a good quality of life.
Last reviewed: November 2016