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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Overview and guidance

The autism spectrum

Understanding autism is a free badged course which lasts 8 weeks, with approximately 3 hours’ study time each week. You can work through the course at your own pace, so if you have more time one week there is no problem with pushing on to complete another week’s study.

Across the 8 weeks of Understanding autism, you will engage with key topics including how autism affects children, adults and families, how the condition was first identified and how ideas and understanding have evolved in the decades since. You will consider current ideas about what causes autism, the challenges faced by autistic individuals and their families, and what forms of help and support are available. You will learn that no two cases of autism are completely alike, giving rise to the concept of an autism spectrum.

The course includes authoritative overviews of what is known, and equally important, highlights the significant gaps in our knowledge. The material includes the work of autism professionals – researchers and clinicians for instance, and also the ‘inside’ perspectives of autistic individuals and family members: all these viewpoints play a role in understanding autism.

Knowledge about autism and provision of services and support have tended to advance more rapidly in countries such as the UK and the US where resources are more plentiful. The course therefore draws extensively on the insights and provision developed in such settings. But autism is a global concern, and it is equally important to consider how cultural differences may affect awareness and understanding of autism, and the particular challenges it poses in low income countries where resources are scarce.

Tell us a little about yourself

Before reading further, please take a few minutes to tell us about yourself and why you are studying the course via this survey [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Terminology in the autism field

Throughout the course, you will engage with a range of different ideas about what autism means to autistic individuals and their families, and how it should be approached by society. This includes a range of views on the most appropriate language for this field. Some key points are noted here:

Autism or autism spectrum?

In this course the terms ‘autism’ and ‘autism spectrum’ will be used more or less interchangeably.

‘Person with autism’ or ‘autistic person’?

Some years ago, the National Autistic Society of the UK recommended ‘person with autism’ arguing that ‘autistic person’ and similar phrases were demeaning to the individual. Yet, as it turns out, many adults on the spectrum prefer the latter phrase. This course predominantly adopts the second usage, but recognises the range of views on these language choices

Autism Spectrum Disorder or Autism Spectrum Condition?

Though the formal diagnostic criteria use the phrase ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD), many people reject the medical and disability implications of this phrase. The more neutral phrase ‘Autism Spectrum Condition’ or ASC will be used in this course. We recognise that for some even the term ‘condition’ may seem an unacceptable label for a way of engaging with the world which is just an aspect of human diversity. You will encounter some different views on this during the course.

Difficulty, disability or difference?

Autism involves characteristic traits – ways of behaving and interacting with the world – which differ from those of others in the population. Many of these differences are undoubtedly challenging for the individual and their family, and ‘difficulty’ is therefore a reasonable term to use. Some of these difficulties may also be disabling. But seeing autism characteristics purely as ‘difficulties’ or ‘disabilities’ is an oversimplification. What other people perceive as ‘difficult behaviour’ may be unproblematic or fulfilling for the person with autism themselves. What is disabling for one autistic individual may not be experienced as such by another. Differences may also take the form of very positive traits. Where possible, then, the term ‘difference’ will be employed in this course, rather than difficulty or disability. But it is nonetheless important to acknowledge the serious challenges that certain differences present for people with autism.

As you can begin to see, the issues underlying different uses of language in the autism field are controversial, and have no easy or universally accepted answers. You will encounter these issues again at points during the course, and we will also give you suggestions for further reading.


Acronyms are small groups of letters used to stand for longer phrases or descriptions e.g. U.K. stands for United Kingdom. You will encounter quite a lot of acronyms in the autism field e.g. NAS for National Autistic Society. All are fully introduced, usually with an accompanying glossary entry. Try to familiarise yourself with these acronyms, some of which are tested in quiz questions.

Special study features:

  • Each week opens with five specific Learning Outcomes and a brief video overview of the week’s work from course author, Dr Ilona Roth.
  • Regular text activities encourage your active engagement with video clips and other materials. You can record your answers in the text boxes provided and refer back to them at any time.
  • The interactive glossary will help you with new and unfamiliar terms. If you click on any term that is in bold in the text, a definition or explanation will pop up. You can also search through the whole glossary, which you will find here.
  • An interactive quiz at the end of each week is designed for you to test your learning. Passing the quizzes for weeks 4 and 8 will enable you to gain a badge for the course – see the next page of this introduction for further information.
  • Key articles and resources cited in the text are listed as references at the end of the week. A list of further recommended reading and other resources is provided at the end of the course.

Learning outcomes for the course:

After completing this course, you will be able to:

  • outline what is meant by autism, why it is considered a spectrum, and how it affects different individuals and families
  • appreciate different approaches to understanding autism, including theoretical and clinical perspectives and personal accounts
  • outline key features of psychological, neurobiological and genetic explanations of autism
  • explain key aspects of diagnosis, intervention, education and life-span development
  • understand topical issues including neurodiversity perspectives, autism prevalence in women and autism in global context.