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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 results from biological or neurological differences in the brain. And while the cause of ASD is unknown, research suggests there may be a genetic basis in many instances, although not all.

The person on the spectrum may experience challenges in socialising and communicating with others. This may include interacting with others by starting conversations, maintaining back-and-forth conversations and sharing enjoyment and interests with others. They may experience challenges in understanding or using body language, such as facial expressions, eye contact and gestures. They may find it challenging to make friends or maintain friendships. For example, they may not find it easy to adjust their behaviour to suit different social settings. Young children may experience challenges in engaging in pretend play with their peers.

The person may also have narrow areas of interest and a tendency to fixate on certain topics. 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 (e.g., lining up or grouping of objects). They may struggle with change and prefer their routines and environments to stay the same. They may also over-react or under-react to sounds, sights, touch, tastes or smells and may be fascinated by particular sensory experiences (e.g., watching a spinning object or touching or smelling objects).

The person on the spectrum may also have the following accompanying impairments:

  • Intellectual impairment – Many people on the spectrum have average or above-average intelligence, however, around 30% have an intellectual disability
  • Language impairment – Some individuals on the spectrum have extensive vocabularies, however, around 30% have limited speech.
  • 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 2012 Survey of Ageing and Carers (SDAC), approximately one Australian in every 100 has a diagnosis of ASD, however, the prevalence rate is much higher in young people aged 5–19 years. Increases in diagnoses may be due to an increase in autism awareness and changes to the diagnostic criteria. A recent nationwide survey in the US found that one in 59 eight-year-old children were diagnosed with ASD.

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

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