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What is Autism?

Autism is a complex lifelong developmental disability that can cause differences in communication, interacting with others and experiences in everyday situations.

Although incredibly variable, an autistic person may demonstrate:

• Strength in areas such as attention to detail, patience, technology skills, logic skills or they could have greater memory for particular information.
• A strong passion for interests, and intense focus on particular objects and topics.
• Challenges with back and forth conversations, and knowing when and how to join conversations.
• Challenges with developing, maintaining and understanding relationships with other people.
• Challenges with using and understanding non-verbal communication such as gestures and eye contact.
• Challenges coping with change and unexpected events.
• Repetitive behaviours.
• Challenges tolerating certain sensations or fascinations with certain sensations such as sounds, textures and smells.

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 Autism Spectrum Disorder.

No two autistic people are the same – each person has their own way of seeing the world, which makes them interesting and unique.

The cause of autism is not fully understood, however, structured early intervention, therapy and education delivered by professionals with expertise in autism can make a significant difference.

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. Approximately one Australian in every 70 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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