Autism is a neurological variation (a neurodivergence) that occurs in about one percent of the population and is classified as a developmental disability. Although it may be more common than previously thought, it is not a new condition and exists in all parts of the world, in both children and adults of all ages. The terms “autistic” and “autism spectrum” often are used to refer inclusively to people who have an official diagnosis on the autism spectrum or who self-identify with the autistic community. While all autistics are as unique as any other human beings, they share some characteristics which are typical of autism.
1. Different sensory experiences. For example, heightened sensitivity to light, difficulty interpreting internal physical sensations, hearing loud sounds as soft and soft sounds as loud. This can be either painful or pleasurable depending on the sensory stimulus, and can often be both depending on the autistic person’s anxiety levels, mental and physical health at the time, and whether or not they have control over the stimulus. E.g. an autistic person can be hypersensitive to the noise of other people, yet can enjoy listening to their own music at a very loud volume.
2. Non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving. For example, learning “difficult” tasks (e.g. calculus) before “simple” tasks (e.g. addition), difficulty with “executive functions”, or being simultaneously gifted at tasks requiring fluid intelligence and having a verbal reasoning learning disability. It is important that autistic people are given the tools they need to learn in the way that best suits them. There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach, and each autistic person should be consulted individually – including autistic children who (where possible) should always be involved in their educational planning.
3. Deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects. “Narrow but deep”, these “intense interests” could be anything from mathematics to ballet, from doorknobs to physics, and from politics to bits of shiny paper. These interests often bring intense joy to the autistic person and should not be discouraged.
4. Atypical, sometimes repetitive, movements. This includes “stereotyped” and “self-stimulatory” (stimming) behaviour such as rocking or flapping, and also the difficulties with motor skills and motor planning associated with apraxia or dyspraxia. Stimming is often used by an autistic person to regulate or express their emotions, or to feel where they are in relation to the space around them.
5. Need for consistency, routine, and order. For example, holidays may be experienced more with anxiety than pleasure, as they mean time off from school and the disruption of the usual order of things. Autistic people may take great pleasure in organising and arranging items.
6. Difficulties in understanding and expressing language as used in typical communication, both verbal and non-verbal. This may manifest similarly to semantic-pragmatic language disorder. It’s often because a young child does not seem to be developing language, that a parent first seeks to have a child assessed. Autistic adults often continue to struggle to use language to explain their emotions and internal state, and to articulate concepts (which is not to say they do not experience and understand these). Autistic adults (as with children) can be speaking, non-speaking, or speak only when they feel comfortable doing so. Most autistic people, however, are able to communicate if they are provided with the right tools, such as communication boards, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), Picture Communication System (PCS), and various sign languages including British Sign Language (BSL) and Makaton.
7. Difficulties in understanding and expressing typical social interaction. For example, preferring parallel interaction, having delayed responses to social stimulus, or behaving in a socially expected manner to the “norms” of a given social context (for example, not saying “hi” immediately after another person says “hi”).
Autism is diagnosed based on observation by a diagnostician or team of diagnosticians (e.g. neuropsychologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, etc.).
This material was adapted with permission from the “What Is Autism?” page on the Change.org website.
FAQs Frequently Asked Questions
Our most-asked question is about support for autistic adults in a their local area of the UK - no matter where they live. We have plans to develop a directory of autism-friendly services on this website so please keep checking the site. However there are not so many specialist services supporting adults in the UK (Summer 2022) so we are hopeful that our work with the NHS and Government departments will spark more of these being created.