What is autism?

Autism is becoming more commonly spoken about yet one person with autism may be very different to the next; so what actually is autism?

Autism is considered a “pervasive developmental disorder”. “Pervasive” meaning it effects all areas of a person’s life and “developmental” meaning it begins in early childhood. It is also considered part of the “autism spectrum”. “Spectrum” meaning it can include a wide range of characteristics, abilities and challenges. So adults and children with autism do vary widely in their learning ability, behaviour and other characteristics yet all share some common challenges. All people on the “autism spectrum” have difficulties with social interaction, communication and restricted or repetitive interests or activities.

Difficulties with social impairment can vary from being withdrawn and avoiding social contact through to people who try to interact with others but appear odd or inappropriate at times. They may have difficulty understanding the thoughts and feelings of others and may lack sympathy or empathy. They may have difficulty understanding how to behave in social situations and may not understand the unwritten rules of social interaction or in the case of children, social play. They may have difficulty using eye contact and facial expressions in a social way and they may have difficulty understanding the expressions of others. Children may have difficulty joining in with others and sharing toys and games and may prefer to play alone. They may like to do things their own way and have difficulty taking into account the needs and interests of others.

Difficulties with communication can vary from people who have no speech or very limited communication through to people who can speak very well but may have difficulty with the social aspects of communicating. They may have difficulty taking turns in a conversation and may dominate the interaction or get stuck on a favourite topic. They may be very literal and not understand more abstract meanings. They may ask excessive questions or repeat things that they have heard somewhere else such as on TV or in a movie. They may not understand that certain things are not appropriate to talk about in certain places or with certain people and so may appear blunt or inappropriate. They will also have difficulty with the nonverbal aspects of communicating such as understanding and using eye contact, facial expressions and tone of voice. They may use a flat or unusual tone or even sound as though they have an accent though they do not come from another language background.

Restricted and repetitive interests and activities can vary widely depending on the person. What people with autism have in common is the strong focus they have on one, or a limited range of activities. This may range from topics such as dinosaurs, transport timetables or ancient Egypt, to a certain movie, TV show or character, to a very simple activity such as watching a favourite object spin, or lining certain things up over and over. What people with autism have in common is the intense level of their interest and the long periods of time they can spend doing their activity. Often this means that they have little interest in other activities not related to their topic of choice and spend most of their free time doing, talking about or thinking about their interest.

Some other characteristics which many people with autism show areunusual or repetitive movements such as: flapping, rocking, toe walking, hand or finger movements, repetitive movements with objects such as spinning, lining up, sorting, flicking, repeatedly turning things on and off or opening and shutting things. Many people with autism also show sensory issues such as sensitivity to noises, smells, textures, certain clothes or foods.

All people with autism share these three areas of difficulty, but have their own personality, and vary according to their intelligence level, family and cultural background. Some may have other diagnosis such as ADHD, intellectual disability or learning problems while others do not. As Sue Larkey states on her website “to know a person with autism is not to know autism”. Each person with autism requires support and understanding tailored to their own unique needs.

Common questions

If I think my child has autism what do I do? The process for getting a diagnosis and follow up support varies depending on where you live. Our website has details about the process in South Australia. In other areas discuss your concerns with your doctor and ask to be referred to a paediatrician that specialises in autism.

Will my child grow out of it? Autism is a lifelong condition so people do not grow out of it. They do however learn and develop, their needs and abilities change over time and with support many people with autism lead full and happy lives. Support in adulthood may vary from being fully dependant to needing just a little support with relationships. The more support children receive when they are younger the better they will do when they are older.

What kind of support does my child need? Support needs vary from child to child so each child should be individually assessed to determine what is most important for them. Many children benefit from speech pathology for communication skills, occupational therapy for fine motor and sensory issues and psychology for behavioural issues. All these professionals also help children to develop social skillls in different ways.

What causes autism? Autism is thought to be at least partly genetic as it tends to run in families. Scientists are not yet clear about the exact genes or causes as yet but it is clear that it is not caused by the way the child has been raised.

More information about autism is available to download from the download section of the

Talking Matters website.

For further information try these websites:

Sue Larkey

Autism SA

Talking Matters

Related Blog Posts

If you liked this post you may also like:

Developing recounts
Picture exchange
Why 20% of kids struggle!
Use visuals 10 ways!


  • Blog Categories: