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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that affects social and communication skills.

Common difficulties

People with ASD often find it difficult to process sensory information such as sights, sounds and smells. They may be very sensitive to sensory information, or very unaware of it. They may also seem withdrawn and uninterested in the world around them.

Every person with ASD is different. ASD affects some people more than others. People with many severe problems may not be able to look after themselves. People with mild problems can usually live full lives.

We use the term autism spectrum disorder because autism shows in so many different ways. We use it to describe the whole range of symptoms and behaviours.

We still don't know the exact cause of autism but research shows that genetic factors are important (it's passed down in families). Autism almost always becomes obvious either from birth or before age 3. But people who have mild autism may go through life without being diagnosed.

People with ASD have delays or difficulties in three main ways.

Speech and communication

People with ASD find it hard to understand and use spoken language. They often find body language and facial expressions hard to figure out. Some people may almost be unable to speak. Others may speak in an unusual way, such as sounding formal.

Social behaviour

People with ASD find it difficult to make sense of social cues. They may behave in strange or inappropriate ways.

Thinking and imagination

People with ASD find it hard to think and behave flexibly. They may also dislike changes to their routine. They often have unusual interests. They may behave in repetitive or obsessive ways, like flicking or flapping their hands. Some people with ASD may find learning difficult. But many people with ASD are of average or above average intelligence.

Asperger syndrome

Asperger syndrome is one kind of ASD. It is a form of autism at the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Higher-functioning means that the person with ASD is more capable of looking after themselves. But they may still need support.

People with Asperger syndrome are of average (or higher) intelligence. They also have fewer problems with language so usually speak well. Many people with Asperger syndrome don't dislike human contact and try hard to be friendly. But they still find it hard to understand body language and facial expressions. They may also struggle to make sense of abstract ideas.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created February 2016. Last updated March 2019.


Page reference: 242462

Review key: HICDG-40335