What is Autism?

Autism is a life long developmental disability that affects a person’s ability to communicate and to make sense of our social world. The disorder usually appears before the child is three years old. People with autism often also have learning disabilities, but a minority have normal or even high general intelligence. Boys are 4 times more likely to have autism than girls.

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It is one of the most common developmental disabilities, with estimates that 1 in 100 people have the condition – the estimates vary slightly depending on who you get your figures from.  The C.D.C. in the U.S. has recently announced a figure of 1 in 88 people.  Despite its prevalence, it is still a largely misunderstood condition.

People with autism have difficulties in three areas, known as “the triad of impairments”:

Autism affects individuals to varying degrees and this is reflected in the term “Autistic Spectrum Disorder”.  More able people with autism may receive a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.  The difficulties in each area of the triad of impairments may be expressed in different behaviours, e.g. the difficulty in social interaction may be expressed in terms of aloof behaviour, where the child will have little to do with others, or as over-familiar behaviour, such as touching strangers in the street.

For more information about each area of the triad, please click on the links above.

People with autism often have an uneven profile of skills, with a marked difference in their abilities in some areas compared to others; they often show strengths in those areas that are independent of socialunderstanding, e.g. manipulating numbers or working with computers.

Individuals with autism often also have sensory difficulties, which may include hyper-sensitivity (overly sensitive), or hypo-sensitivity (under sensitive), to light, sound, touch, smell and taste. Many individuals with autism report sensing the world differently to how most of us experience it.


These different sensory experiences can have a major impact on the life of somebody with autism and it is something that we need to be aware of. Your child’s behaviour will give you a guide to whether they have sensory difficulties, e.g. if they get distressed around noise or cover their ears a lot, they are probably hyper-sensitive to noise – and we should understand that it may even be quite painful for them to be in a noisy environment. If on the other hand your child is always banging things, it may be that they are hypo-sensitive to noise, and need to bang things to stimulate that sense. Some people with autism even report being alternatively hyper- and hypo- sensitive at different times, unable to hear something one minute and the next minute almost being deafened by the same sound.

Click this link to find out more about sensory difficulties: