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Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are ‘life-long neurodevelopmental disabilities that involve an abnormality of brain development and function’.  The word ‘spectrum’ is used because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder experience can vary widely. The word ‘autism’ is sometimes used to refer to all ASDs. Research shows that about 1 in 110 children have an ASD and it is more common in males than females (3:1). There is no single cause, however genetic factors and associated medical condition (e.g. tuberous sclerosis) have been identified. ASD is not caused by a person’s upbringing or social circumstances. 

The three Autism Spectrum Disorders are:

  • Autistic Disorder (also known as classic autism). Usually detected before 3 years of age.
  • Asperger’s Disorder (also known as Asperger’s syndrome). Often detected later than autistic disorder as speech usually develops at the expected age and there is no significant delay in cognitive abilities or self help skills.  
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) (also known as atypical autism). Where the full criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger’s disorder are not met.

Regardless of the disorder type, a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder will experience difficulties in social situations. Autism spectrum disorders are characterised by significant difficulties in 3 areas:

  1. Impairment in reciprocal social interaction
  2. Impairment in verbal and non-verbal communication skills and play
  3. Stereotyped behaviour, interests and activities (restricted and repetitive interests).

Individuals with an ASD may also have learning difficulties or an intellectual impairment (occurs in 70% of people with autistic disorder); unusual sensory interests (e.g. sniffing objects, fascination with spinning objects or lights); unusual sensory response or sensitivities that may involve avoiding particular sounds/ textures (e.g. hair dryer, vacuum cleaner, sand) and intolerance to certain foods.

Emotional and Behavioural problems (e.g. aggression, obsessions, self-injurious behaviour, fussy eating, sleep problems) are common.  The nature of communication impairments e.g. repetitive speech, socially inappropriate behaviour may result in social isolation, teasing and bullying. Mental health issues such as depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and psychosis may emerge during adolescence and continue into adulthood, requiring medication and psychological treatment* Epilepsy is common and can develop at any age. 

Although usually diagnosed in early childhood, ASD can be diagnosed at any age by a developmental paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist experienced with ASD. There is no cure. However, early diagnosis, the right interventions, specialised/planned educational programs, structured support and access to specialist and other support services can greatly minimise the effects of an ASD.  Consistency in the strategies identified to support each person with ASD is essential for everyone involved in the persons life (e.g. family, friends, school, work, organisations involved with providing support).  Assessments include observing and meeting with the individual, their family and service providers and administering standardised tests or questionnaires.

Behaviours include:

1. Impairment in social interaction

  • Seeking people’s company but lacking ability to engage in two-way social interactions.
  • Markedly impaired use of non-verbal communication e.g. gestures. facial expressions.
  • Difficulties forming and sustaining friendships.
  • Lack of spontaneously seeking to share enjoyment, interest and activities with others.
  • Awkward, avoidant or indifferent eye contact.
  • Inability to understand social rules e.g. make socially embarrassing comments unintentionally. 
  • Impaired understanding of other people’s motivations, perspectives or feelings. 

2. Impairment in communication and play

  • A delay in or lack of speech development without other communication eg gesture/ mime.
  • Significant difficulty in initiating and sustaining conversations (in those with speech).
  • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language such as repeating phrases from television.
  • Limited imaginative or make-believe play.
  • Lack of imitation of others.

3. Restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours

  • Interests are unusual, intense, or excessively narrow.
  • Stereotyped and repetitive body movements e.g. hand flapping and spinning.
  • Repetitive use of objects (e.g. repeatedly lining up toys).
  • Adherence to rigid routines (e.g. insisting on travelling home  the same way each day).
  • Intolerance of change.
  • Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects.


For further information see Centre for Developmental Disability Health Victoria  fact sheet.


1. Definition and information sourced from The Centre for Developmental Disability Health - Vic (2010)

2. Statistics sourced from The Centre for Developmental Disability Health - Vic (2010)

Last Modified: 18/10/2017 4:33 PM