What is Autism?

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population. It is classified as a developmental disability. Even though autism may be more common than previously thought, it is not a new condition and autistic adults do, in fact, exist. Autism is non-discriminatory, it affects all races and it can be found in all parts of the world – although sadly, most parts of the world treat those affected unfairly. The words “Autistic” and “autism spectrum” are used by people holding an official diagnosis or by people who self-identify with the Autistic community. Just as all human beings, Autistics are diverse and individualistic, but there are some unique characteristics typical amongst most holding a formal diagnosis.

1. Different sensory experiences. For example, having an increased sensitivity to light or sound, having difficulty interpreting internal physical sensations, and/or synesthesia.

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 intellectually disabled at tasks requiring verbal skills.

3. Deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects. “Narrow but deep,” these “special interests” could be anything from mathematics to ballet, from doorknobs to physics, and from politics to bits of shiny paper.

4. Atypical, sometimes repetitive, movement or sound. This includes “stereotyped” and “self-stimulatory” behavior such as rocking or flapping, making a monotonous droning noise or manipulating vocal cords to make various sounds, and difficulties with motor skills and motor planning associated with apraxia or dyspraxia. Autistic children may enjoy repetitive motions, like watching, or spinning, a wheel for extended periods of time.

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. People on the autism spectrum may take great pleasure in organizing and arranging items – lining up and relining up toys, or rearranging furniture are just two examples of this behavior.

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 evaluated. As adults, people with an autism spectrum diagnosis 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).

7. Difficulties in understanding and expressing typical social interaction. For example, preferring parallel interaction, having delayed responses to social stimulus, or behaving in an “inappropriate” 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. neurologist, neuropsychologist, developmental pediatrician, etc.).


This material was adapted with permission from ASAN on their “About Autism” Page.