What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum condition which means that while all people with a diagnosis share certain difficulties, they can present in a variety of ways and to varying extents.
ASD, or autism as it is often referred to, results from biological or neurological differences in the brain. And while what causes ASD is still unknown, research suggests there may be a genetic basis in many instances, although not all.
People on the spectrum may experience challenges in socialising and communicating with others such as starting conversations with others, maintaining back-and-forth conversations, and sharing enjoyment and interests. They may experience challenges in understanding or using body language (eg facial expressions, eye contact and gestures) and may find it challenging to make and/or maintain friendships. They may also find it difficult to adjust their behaviour to suit different social settings, and young children can often experience challenges in engaging in pretend play with their peers.
People on the spectrum may also have narrow areas of interest, a tendency to fixate on certain topics and may develop exceptional knowledge on specific subjects.
Some aspects of their behaviour may appear repetitive, such as the repetitive use of words or phrases, body movements such as hand-flapping or body-rocking, and the way they use objects (eg lining up or grouping of objects). They may struggle with change, preferring their routines and environments to stay the same. Some people on the spectrum over-react or under-react to sounds, sights, touch, tastes or smells and may be fascinated by particular sensory experiences (eg watching a spinning object or touching or smelling objects).
In around 30 percent of cases, the person on the spectrum may also be diagnosed with an intellectual disability or a language disorder such as limited speech. However, others may be highly intelligent and articulate.
People on the spectrum can also have high levels of ability in particular areas such as attention to detail, creative talents (eg music, drawing or visual arts), mathematical ability and expertise in the use of technology, as well as character strengths such as a strong sense of morality, honesty, trustworthiness and loyalty.
While everyone can and will exhibit some of these characteristics at some point or another, it is the pattern of behaviours, their intensity, and the fact that they persist beyond the typical age that leads to a diagnosis of ASD.
It can often be difficult to know where to start if you suspect a family member may be on the spectrum, however, initially we would suggest the following:
- If it is your child you are concerned about, discuss your concerns with their teachers, therapists and other professionals who know them.
- Discuss your concerns about your child/partner with the family doctor. They may suggest a referral to a (for a child) a paediatrician or in some cases a child psychiatrist. For adults, this referral may be to a psychiatrist or psychologist.
Due to the complex nature of the disorder and changes in clinical definitions over time, research findings on the prevalence rate of autism varies considerably. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC), an estimated 164,000 Australians had autism in 2015 (ABS 2016). The number of people with autism in Australia has increased considerably in recent years and the prevalence of ASD is reportedly growing at a faster rate than any other disability (Australian Autism Alliance, 2020) Increases in diagnoses may be due to an increase in autism awareness and changes to the diagnostic criteria.
DSM-5: What does it all mean?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (the DSM) is developed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in order to provide the criteria by which clinicians define and diagnose various psychiatric and developmental conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The APA published the final version of their new diagnostic manual, the DSM-5 in May 2013. Click here to read an information paper on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ASD.