What is autism?

Autism is a difference in the functioning of the brain. It is not a mental illness but a neurological difference! Everybody with autism spectrum disorder has personal strengths but it can also cause some challenges to be experienced.

If you are an individual with autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) it can affect you in several areas including communication, interaction and behaviour.

If you are an adult caring for a person with autism or ASD, you may feel pressured and challenged particularly if a diagnosis has not yet been achieved.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people. It also affects how they make sense of and interact with the world around them.

All individuals with ASD are very different but there are some core similarities, including:

  • Problems with social interaction and communication – including problems understanding and being aware of other people's emotions and feelings; it can also include delayed language development and an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly.  

For example, individuals may struggle to initiate or continue a conversation, they may not understand social rules such as recognising a need for personal space or not interrupting others who are speaking or they may find it difficult to form and maintain friendships. Often there is a preference for completing tasks on an individual basis and sometimes being placed in a social situation can cause significant anxiety. They may not understand other’s facial expressions / body language or the intentions or utterances of others which can be confusing for them and may generate misinterpretations.


  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of thought, interests and physical behaviours – including making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting, and becoming upset if these set routines are disrupted.

For example, they may develop an intense interest or preoccupation with an object or may require a fixed routine or ritual to be followed. In some cases repetitive body movements may be observed, or they may be hypersensitive to certain sounds or visuals.



Autism Strengths

Stephen Wiltshire

Many people on the autism spectrum have significant strengths. These may include an exceptional eye for detail or memory of events or facts, a high level of accuracy and consistency, be very dependable and have the ability to prosper in a structured and methodical home and work environment. Some also have extensive artistic and inventive talents!  Check out Stephen Wiltshire MBE for an example of just what someone with autism can achieve.

Many individuals with autism do not consider autism to be a disability; hence autistic spectrum condition is becoming a popular name. As we said earlier it can be considered to simply be a neurological difference!


Sensory Sensitivity

Individuals with autism may be prone to sensory sensitivity including all seven of the following: vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, proprioception (relative position and movement of neighboring parts of the body and muscle tension) and vestibular (balance).

Hyper-sensitivity – when a reaction to a stimulus is overly intense in relation to the expected reaction, for example, an extreme aversion to certain sounds or smells.

Hypo-sensitivity – when a reaction to a stimulus is lower than what you may expect, for example, a high threshold to pain.

At The Practice MK we can help evaluate a child or adults sensory processing patterns in the context of home, school and community-based activities.

We evaluate a persons unique sensory processing patterns from a position of strengths, providing deeper insight to help you or their school customise the next steps of  any intervention.  For more information on this assessment please see our assessments collection.


Co-morbid condition

Many individuals with autism may have other conditions such as epilepsy and gastrointestinal problems. They may also have mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

Children are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD and not ASD as some of the behaviours can seem similar.  Read more about Autism and ADHD.


Causes of Autism

Most researchers believe that ASDs have a variety of causes, perhaps all affecting the same brain systems, or impeding development through disruption of different abilities necessary for social and communicative development. Whether environmental factors interact with genetic susceptibility is as yet unclear. Medical Research Council. (2001). MRC review of autism research: Epidemiology and causes. London: MRC.

Four main sub-types of autism used to be recognised within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. This included:

  • Autistic Disorder, also known as autism, childhood autism, early infantile autism, Kanner’s syndrome or infantile psychosis.
  • Asperger Syndrome, also known as Asperger’s disorder or simply Asperger’s.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, also known as CDD, dementia infantalis, disintegrative psychosis or Heller’s syndrome.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified), also known as PDD (NOS) or atypical autism.

However the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, published in May 2013 simply recommends one diagnosis called Autism Spectrum Disorder.


Challenges with Autism

Some people may also behave in difficult and challenging ways; however, this isn’t generally in a pro-active way but is habitually in response (a reaction) to a perceived challenge or difficulty, for example, being asked to put a particular toy down, eat dinner in a different chair or someone asking for the time whilst your completing your usual routinised walk to the bus stop. Some may also have learning difficulties and speech impairments.

Because of these problems, autistic people often struggle to make friends, have successful relationships, do well at school, or obtain appropriate jobs. However, with the right support which is individualised to the needs or the person many can and will lead relatively independent lives. Others will continue to need assistance, compassion and tolerance throughout their lives.

Children and young people on the autism spectrum as well as their parents and carers face many issues on a day to day basis. However, with the right support and tailored interventions we can assist you with enhancing the wellbeing of your family.

People who have ASD can often feel excluded.

Autism Teenager

Adults can face equally difficult scenarios, including challenges in managing their daily living skills, relationships, employment and stress related conditions. However, again with the appropriate support simple changes can afford each individual with an improved quality of life, and in many cases, adults with autism can manage to live independently and gain employment and subsist successfully in the community.

Of primary importance is the FACT that each individual with autism is absolutely unique. One size does not fit all! Every person has exclusive needs and abilities.

At The Practice MK we specialise in the assessment and diagnosis of autism in children and adults and can help formulate interventions and support plans to help you and your family through our network of counsellors, coaches and psychologists.  Call or email us to talk about the options available to you.  We can talk all day about autism so no question is too much for us to help answer.

The Practice MK