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What is autism?

Updated Friday, 10th August 2012
There's a lot of confusion about what autism is. Ilona Roth and Rosa Hoekstra offer an easy-to-understand overview.

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Test your knowledge of autism with our interactive quiz, and learn more with our badged course Understanding autism (published 2018).

Autism involves several characteristic areas of difficulty, as well as enhanced skills in some cases.

People with autism find it hard to interact socially with others or to make friends, and frequently experience bullying. They have communication difficulties – some can’t speak at all; some develop speech later than usual, while others can speak perfectly well, but have problems with the social aspects of communication. For example they don’t understand when a listener is getting bored by their stories; they may take language very literally or find it hard to get the point of a joke.

People with autism also tend to have narrow interests, such as reading everything about one type of dinosaur, and they often repeat the same activities over and over, ranging from constantly rocking backwards and forwards or flicking their fingers, to always eating the same foods, or repeatedly watching the same video.

These characteristic atypicalities in the ways people with autism think and behave, are central to the framework currently used for diagnosing autism. There’s also growing agreement that most people with autism have sensory difficulties, such as being overly sensitive to particular sounds, sights or smells, or quite the opposite, being insensitive to sensory inputs, for instance being relatively insensitive to pain.  

Despite these shared areas of difficulty in autism, there are also striking differences between individuals. Because of this variation, researchers and practitioners often talk about the ‘autism spectrum’, and differentiate between individuals and groups in terms of how severely they are affected. 

Profoundly affected individuals have substantial social and communication difficulties often including little or no speech, and markedly restricted and repetitive behaviour and interests. They may also have intellectual disabilities.

Less severely affected people may have no obvious language problems and be intellectually capable or even exceptionally bright, while remaining inflexible, bound by their routines, and struggling to interact socially and communicate effectively.  

But autism is not only about difficulties. Many people on the autism spectrum, right across the spectrum, have some areas of enhanced ability, such as good attention to and memory for detail. As this article explains, some have unusual special skills, such as being able to complete complex jigsaw puzzles upside down without the picture, or remember all the flags of the world. And a very small proportion of individuals on the spectrum have outstanding talents in fields including art and music. 

More common

Autism spectrum conditions are much more common than was previously thought. About one per cent (or one in a hundred) of people in the UK are thought to be on the autism spectrum. Perhaps you know someone with autism, or are on the autism spectrum yourself?

The exact causes of autism spectrum conditions are still unknown, but there is good evidence that differences in thinking and behaviour are accompanied by subtle atypicalities in the way the brain works in people on the spectrum. We explore this in this article.

It is also clear that autism is highly genetic, something we look at in this article. Autism tends to run in families. It is not uncommon for more than one person within a family to be on the autism spectrum. Scientists have not fully identified the genetic mechanisms involved but what they do know is that there is not one single gene for autism. Instead, numerous genes seem to be involved, and different genes may be involved in different families or individuals.

Find out more

  • Want to discover more about the subject of autism? Why not study our badged course Understanding autism which gives you an insight into the symptoms of conditions on the autism spectrum as well as how behaviour, mental functioning, family relationships and social adaptation is affected.
  • Read about work on autism carried out in the Open University’s Brain and Behavioural Sciences discipline 

  • The National Autistic Society: The website of the National Autistic Society, which offers information on autism and Asperger syndrome, as well as links to relevant news and events. It also has a database of published material on autism with over 18,500 published research papers, books, articles, videos and other materials.

  • Research Autism: This charity is dedicated to research into the treatments, therapies and services that can be used to help people with autistic spectrum disorders. It gives an overview of their research plus studies and a list of interventions.

  • Autism NI: This charity seeks to support parents, professionals, and people on the autistic spectrum in Northern Ireland

  • The Scottish Society of Autism: This society supports families in Scotland affected by autism, offering consultancy and training.

  • Autism and Asperger's Syndrome on Useful overview of autism and Asperger's syndrome from medical journalist and broadcaster Dr Trisha Macnair.


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