Medibank Health Directory

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way an individual relates to their environment and interacts with others.

ASD is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions. Its causes are largely unknown, and it is thought that autism may instead represent an example of the concept of neurodiversity.

The signs of autism can appear in a child’s first years of life. Indicators include impaired social communication and interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviour, such as:

  • Intense interest in a particular subject matter.
  • Body movements such as hand flapping and rocking.
  • Sensitivity to everyday sounds or textures.

The word ‘spectrum’ reflects the wide range of challenges people with autism experience, and the extent to which they may be affected. Autism can range from mild to severe and people with autism may be of high or normal intelligence, or have learning difficulties.

An estimated one in 100 – or 230,000 Australians – has autism, with boys four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. It has been suggested that girls with autism are underdiagnosed as they are more likely to have mild autism, or are more able to manage or camouflage their symptoms. Early assessment and intervention within a supportive environment can help reduce the impact autism has on a child’s life.

Symptoms and signs of autism

Autism usually appears in the first year of life, and at no later than three. An autistic child could have several symptoms from the following categories:


  • Inexplicable tantrums
  • Limited attachments or interests
  • Overactive and uncooperative behaviour, difficulty coping with change
  • Repetitive and unusual movements, like hand flapping and rocking


  • Loss of words previously used
  • Not responding to name by 12 months
  • Not pointing or waving by 12 months
  • No speech by 18 months or spontaneous phrases by 24 months
  • Responding to certain sounds but not the human voice
  • Unusual language or repetitive speech


  • Plays with objects in unusual ways
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Very limited social play


  • Eats a very limited range of foods
  • Fear of some everyday sounds
  • Preoccupation with or an aversion to certain textures
  • Uses peripheral vision to look at objects

Social skills

  • Lack of interest in other children
  • Looks away when you speak
  • Seems to be in own world
  • Unable to follow simple instructions

Autism can also be associated with cognitive strengths such as excellent attention to detail and memory, and a strong drive to detect patterns.

Causes of autism

Autism has no single, known cause. Given its complexity, and the fact that symptoms and severity vary, there is probably a range of causes.

While environment and genetics may play a role, there is no evidence to suggest autism is caused by a child’s upbringing or social circumstances.

Assessment and intervention for autism

Early assessment and targeted intervention can help to reduce the impact of autism.

Medical and behavioural specialists will diagnose autism by assessing a child against a range of criteria related to social and communication skills, restricted and repetitive interests, and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

There are a number of early intervention options to manage autism. An evidence-based approach that supports an individual’s strengths and interests is proven to be the most credible form of treatment.

To help parents decide which intervention is best for their child, the Australian Society for Autism Research (ASFAR) has produced an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of early intervention options.

Related conditions

Individuals with ASD may also be diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, epilepsy and other learning disorders or disabilities.

Further sources



This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think your child may have symptoms of autism.


Have questions?

Our team of experts are ready to help!

Enter your postcode to find your nearest store to have a face-to-face chat!

Fill in the form below or get in touch by calling our dedicated line 1300 110 086.
We are open on Sundays.

In providing your telephone number, you consent to Medibank contacting you about health insurance.

We'll have someone call you soon to help with any questions you have.

contact us