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What is Autism?

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

While there is no cure, early intervention can reduce the impact autism has on a person’s life.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition. Its causes are largely unknown.

The signs of autism generally 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.

An estimated one in 100 – or 230,000 Australians – has autism, with boys four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Early treatment and intervention can help reduce the impact autism has on a child’s life.

Symptoms of autism

Autism usually appears in the first year of life, and at no later than three. An autistic child would 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

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.

One of the greatest controversies surrounding autism is whether a link exists between autism and childhood vaccination, in particular the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Despite extensive research, no reliable study has revealed a link between the two.

Diagnosis and treatment of autism

As yet, there is no cure for autism. Early diagnosis and targeted intervention can help to reduce the impact of autism on a child’s life.

Medical 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.

If diagnosed, there are a number of early intervention options to treat 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 treatment 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 information and 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.