Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. It is neurological in origin - that is, it is a condition of the brain and nervous system. Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to others. To autistic people, the world seems overwhelming, unpredictable and confusing. This causes them considerable anxiety. There is no cure for autism, but with the right sort of support, autistic people can be helped to live a more fulfilling life.
Autism is a spectrum condition. This means that, while all autistic people share certain difficulties, being autistic affects them in different ways. Historically, different names, such as 'classic' autism, Asperger Syndrome and PDD-NOS, have been used to describe different autism profiles. Current diagnostic manuals lump these categories under the umbrella term 'autism spectrum disorders' (ASDs). This article uses the term 'autism' to refer to ASDs.
Features shared among all autistic people include: persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction; restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests; and over- or under- sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as sound or touch. Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and nonverbal language like facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice. They often interpret words literally. They have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This makes it very hard for them to navigate the social world. They may appear to be insensitive because they do not understand. They often stick to set routines and rules, and develop intense and highly focused interests in some objects, hobbies or activities. They often report that the pursuit of such interests is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness. Autistic people may find certain background sounds, which other people do not notice or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. Some tastes, smells, lights, colours, temperatures or touches can also cause them serious issues, including high anxiety and even physical pain.
Some autistic people do not speak, or have limited speech, but understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express. Others have good language skills, but they still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests. Some autistic people benefit from using alternative means of communication. It often helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic people time to process what has been said to them. Autistic people may wonder why they are 'different' and feel their social differences mean people don't understand them. Many autistic people also have intellectual disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions.
Autism is much more common than most people think. There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK - that's more than 1 in 100. Autism appears to affect more men than women.
To find out more, visit the National Autistic Society website.