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What is autism?


Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder is how we describe a number of conditions that can affect how a person experiences and perceives the world around them, including how they interact with other people.  We use the word ‘spectrum’ to describe the disorder, because there is huge variation in how autism can affect a person.

People with autism often experience social and communication difficulties, such as not recognising body language or facial expressions, or finding it difficult to start and maintain conversations. They can also display repetitive, inflexible patterns of behaviour, particularly at times of stress. Some people with autism will have learning disabilities, or other conditions while others are sometimes classed as high-functioning.

While most people will be identified as having autism as young children (typically between the ages of two and three), there have been many cases of people who do not receive a diagnosis until much later in life.  In addition, more boys/men are diagnosed as having autism than girls/women – though some of this may be due to missed diagnosis in girls and women leading to missed support.

Autism is not an illness, or a disease.  It is a lifelong condition and there is no ‘cure’. However, people with autism can be supported to live the best life possible.

Signs of autism

As autism is a spectrum disorder, people with autism may display any combination of the following: –

  • Difficulty making eye contact – or in acknowledging new people
  • Difficulty in interpreting/recognising body language, facial expressions or other people’s emotions and feelings
  • Difficulty in understanding abstract ideas, including jokes and sarcasm
  • Inability to speak, or reduced speech. Sometimes speech takes longer to develop than in ‘neurotypical’ children, while some people with autism will prefer to use forms of sign language
  • Sensory overload – people with autism will sometimes experience the world around them more intensely, making trips to busy, noisy places difficult
  • Repetitive, inflexible patterns of behaviour, such as switching lights on and off, or twisting hands
  • ‘Tantrums’ or ‘meltdowns’ when exposed to change or when upset, or when overloaded by the world around them
  • Lack of interest in peers, or in role-play games

While many people with autism function well in society – and may even go un-diagnosed for many years, others will have lower than average IQs.  Of those with lower IQs, many will also have severe learning difficulties.

Help and support

  • Hft supports adults with learning disabilities and autism nationally, and has a number of specialist autism-focused services for adults. Contact your local service to discuss support options.
  • Hft’s Family Carer Support Service can help with guidance and advice on support options and some of the benefits that are available to people with autism.
  • The National Autistic Society provides information and guidance on everything from diagnosis and health to benefits and social care support.
  • NHS Choices provides a range of information and links to further useful resources.