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What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person relates to and communicates with other people, as well as how they make sense of the world around them.

It is a spectrum condition, which means that although all people with autism have certain difficulties in common, the symptoms and characteristics can occur in a wide variety of combinations and range from mild to severe.

All people with Autism share three main areas of difficulty, which are known as a 'triad of impairments'. These are:-

1) Difficulties with social communication

- Individuals can have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal language (such as body language). Some may have very limited speech or not speak at all, whilst others may have good language skills but still find it hard to understand the back-and-forth nature of conversations.

2) Difficulties with social interaction

- People with autism can find it hard to recognise or understand other people's emotions and feelings, and to express their own. This can make it more difficult for them to fit in socially.

3) Difficulties with social imagination

- 'Social imagination' is a skill which allows us to understand and predict other people's behaviour, to make sense of abstract ideas and to imagine situations outside our usual daily routine. This means that people with Autism may find it difficult to predict how others might behave and to cope with changes to their routine. 

In addition to these three main areas of difficulty, people with Autism may also experience:-

  • Over- or under-sensitivity to sensory information (including sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours)

  • Repetitive movements, such as hand-flapping or spinning

  • A degree of learning disabilities

  • A particular area, or areas, of special interest, which can be intensely focused

Around 1 in 100 people in the UK have an Autistic Spectrum Condition. It is present in people from all backgrounds and affects around four times as many males as females.

The disorder does not only affect childhood, but is a lifelong condition; so children with Autism will grow up to be adults with Autism. However, this does not necessarily mean that the patterns of behaviour present in childhood will never change; as it is a developmental disability which affects all areas of development, symptoms can therefore be different at different ages as the child develops. Some features may not become apparent until later in development, whilst others can disappear with time.

All people with an Autistic Spectrum Condition are unique and have their own individual skills and abilities, as well as areas of difficulty. Some people with autism are able to live relatively independent lives, while others may need a lifetime of specialist support.

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