Open a PDF version to print this topic

HealthInfo Aoraki-South Canterbury

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Pānga takiwātanga

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects communication, social skills and behaviour. Autism shows in many different ways, so we use the term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to describe the whole range of symptoms and behaviours, from mild to quite extreme.

Children with autism have a wide range of challenges and strengths and these can vary with age and over time.

Autism usually becomes obvious before the age of 3, though people with mild autism can go through life without being diagnosed.

We still don't know exactly what causes autism, but research shows that genetic factors are important (it's passed down in families).

Symptoms of ASD

Children on the autism spectrum usually have difficulty in three distinct areas: social skills, communication, and thinking and imagination.

Social skills

Children with ASD find it difficult to make sense of social cues. This makes it hard for them to form and maintain relationships, even if they want to. They may behave in unusual or inappropriate ways.

Speech and communication

Children with ASD have difficulty with non-verbal communication, and sometimes with speech. They often find body language and facial expressions hard to figure out. They may speak in an unusual way, such as sounding formal.

Thinking and imagination

Children with ASD find it hard to be flexible in how they think and behave. "Pretend" play can be difficult. They may also dislike changes to their routine.

Common ASD behaviour

Children with ASD often find it difficult to process sensory information. This sensory information can come from within their own body (for example, balance) or from the world around them (for example, sights and sounds). They may be extremely sensitive to it, or they may not notice it at all.

Because we rely on our senses to feel safe and to relate to others around us, children on the autism spectrum can find it very hard to take part in day-to-day life. They might be anxious or withdrawn, they may over-react or appear uninterested and unengaged. They might develop repetitive behaviours, such as flicking or flapping their hands as a way of coping with too much or too little stimulation.

They often have unusual interests. Some children with ASD may find learning difficult, but many are of average or above-average intelligence.

Diagnosing ASD

There are several things that may indicate your child has autism. KidsHealth lists the signs and symptoms.

If you think your child may be on the autism spectrum, talk to your GP. Your GP will ask questions about your child’s history and behaviour and will watch your child playing. They will also check your child's general health and what they can and can't do. The GP may refer your child for hearing and sight checks.

If your GP thinks your child may have ASD, they'll refer you to a child development specialist or paediatrician (specialist children's doctor).

A development specialist or paediatrician will also ask about your child’s history and behaviour, watch your child and do some neurological (nerve and brain) examinations.

They'll diagnose your child after watching how they behave in different situations and listening to what you've noticed. They may speak to your child's teachers and other health professionals, such as a psychologist, speech-language therapist, and occupational therapist if they're involved.

If your child is very young, their diagnosis may change as they get older.

Supporting my child with ASD

Every child with ASD is different. You know your child best, but health professionals such as occupational therapists and speech-language therapists can help you understand sensory, play and communication differences. They can help you work out strategies that will help your child and will continue to support your child and help them manage their unique difficulties.

Autism New Zealand runs courses to understand your child and learn ways to help them.

  HealthInfo recommends the following videos

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

Written by a Canterbury occupational therapist. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2021.


Page reference: 242462

Review key: HICDG-40335