What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. People with autism see, hear and feel the world differently than other people. Individuals do not outgrow their diagnosis, however; many therapies and interventions have a proven ability to improve outcomes.

Autism is a spectrum condition that presents differently in every individual with a diagnosis but there are similar behaviours and characteristics that those on the spectrum may express to varying degrees.

Please note, this section refers to children and your child but the information also refers to adults living on the autism spectrum

Have a look at our ‘Quick Facts and Misconceptions’ Sheet


Social communication

Individuals with Autism have difficulties interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language, such as gestures and tone of voice. Some individuals have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. Some may have limited speech, repetitive speech (echolalia) or not speak at all but may have fully functioning receptive language.. Some people find alternate forms of communication helpful such as sign language, visual symbols or assistive technology.

Others have more typical language skills, but struggle to understand expectations in a social context.

Tip: Speaking in a clear, consistent way and using literal language can be helpful. When speaking to an individual with autism, give them time to process what has been said.

Social interaction

Reading other people can often be difficult for individuals with autism; recognising or understanding other peoples intentions and feelings can be challenging. Similarly, it may be difficult for these individuals to express their own emotions. These challenges related to social interaction can  make it hard to form build relationships. Many want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about it.  All of this makes navigating the social world challenging and may mean individuals:

  • appear to be insensitive
  • seek out time alone when overloaded by other people
  • not seek comfort from other people
  • appear to behave ‘strangely’ or in a way thought to be socially inappropriate

Repetitive behaviour and routines

For individuals with autism, the world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place. Like all of us, having a daily routine can help us know what to expect out of each day. Some individuals may have specific clothing they prefer to wear, travel the same way, or eat exactly the same thing each day for breakfast. Change can be hard for everyone, especially for people on the autism spectrum; being prepared for change in advance can really help.

Sensory sensitivity

Experiencing over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain is common for individuals with autism. For example, background noise that some people may not even hear may be unbearably loud or distracting for individuals with autism and maybe even cause severe stress or even physical pain.


ASD is often described in terms of difficulties, deficits and challenges. It is just as important to acknowledge to many strengths and abilities of individuals on the spectrum. Once realized, these can be used to promote development and plan for the future.

Visual processing and attention to detail

Visual thinking can be a strength for individuals with ASD which is why many are visual learners. Visual information lasts longer and is more concrete than auditory information and using visuals may help a person on the spectrum process information more accurately and efficiently.

An exceptional attention to detail is a common strength for those who are visually-oriented and many individuals on the spectrum have jobs and/or hobbies which utilize this strength.

Rule-based and logical thinking

It is common for individuals on the spectrum to find comfort in rules and predictability which can be an advantage in developing new skills.

Considering the 5 W’s (and H) for new or challenging situations can be very helpful: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. For example:

  • When someone comes to the door, say hello.
  • When it’s bed time, I brush my teeth.

Presenting rules visually can really help. Some people find a rule book using pictures and words effective. Rules that use first, then statements can help your child understand social interactions, like how other people are feeling. For example, If Sam is laughing, he might be happy.

These statements also tie in with your childs ability to follow clear steps and sequences, so you can use them when you want your child to do something. For example, First you put your shoes on, then you can go outside. Or you can use a simpler version“ for example, Shoes first, then outside.

Special topics of interest and autism spectrum disorder

People with ASD can often focus intently and learn a lot about topics they are interested in. Linking goals and intervention programs to these special interests can be very effective.

Here are some ideas for promoting a childs learning and social and communication skills by making the most of their special interests:

  • Share your child’s interests by playing alongside her. This can develop your child’s play skills if you comment on what you are both doing, swap toys, take turns and so on.
  • Use your child’s interests to expand his numeracy skills. For example, you could use Thomas the Tank Engine and friends to talk about colours, numbers and size.
  • Build your child’s interests into challenging activities. For example, if having a bath is challenging, you could give your child some special interest toys to play with in the bath, or stick pictures of her special topic around the bath as a talking point.
  • Develop your child’s conversational skills by talking to your child about his special interest. This might give your child extra motivation to communicate and talk with you. Your child might start by giving a speech instead of having a conversation. You could gradually introduce questions, and get your child to ask you questions too.

Rote memory skills and autism spectrum disorder

People with ASD are often good at memorizing (rote memory). Many children with ASD can remember large chunks of information, like conversations from movies, words to a song, number plates and so on. You can encourage your child to use rote memory for learning useful information, like your phone number and address, the alphabet and multiplication tables.