What is Autism?

Autism Is A Complex Neurodevelopmental Condition and is characterised by differences in social skills, communication and behaviour.

This means that people who are autistic experience differences in the way they communicate and interact socially, and their behaviour may be repetitive or highly focussed – the term ‘restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour’ is often used to describe this. People who are autistic also tend to experience differences with their senses that can affect the way they feel about and respond to their surroundings. Autism is not a disease or illness.

Autism is also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ‘Spectrum’ refers to the wide range of characteristics, skills and abilities that different people with Autism have. No two people are affected by Autism in exactly the same way. Every person experiences Autism differently and has different support needs. Although the core characteristics of Autism can cause a range of challenges, it is important to recognise that they can also result in unique skills and capabilities.

While Autism is a life-long condition, with appropriate and tailored support, children and Adults with Autism can make significant progress and live fulfilling lives. Consequently, it is imperative that people with Autism have access to specialist services that understand their needs and are experienced in developing their skills and strengths.

What Are The Signs Of Autism?

Autism can be diagnosed at any age. Usually people who have Autism experience differences in these areas:


Communication differences have always been considered a core feature of Autism and are often broken down into two categories:

Receptive communication involves the ability to make sense of what others mean through their verbal language, facial expression, body language and other non-verbal cues. People with Autism may find some or all of these elements of receptive communication challenging.

Expressive communication refers to how we express our needs, wants, thoughts, ideas, and feelings to others. Some people with Autism experience significant delays in developing language, while others may have an incredibly well-developed vocabulary and be able to talk about specific topics in great detail. Some people with Autism may be non-verbal or have limited speaking skills, while others express themselves mainly through talking.

Social Interaction

Communication involves a sender and a receiver of information – making it inherently social. In social situations there are many nuances that guide our interactions with others, and unspoken rules that change based on the situation and people involved. People with Autism often find it difficult to recognise and understand social cues and may not instinctively know how to adjust their response to suit different social contexts.

Repetitive Actions

Repetitive Actions involve doing or saying something over and over again. Depending on the person, these repetitive behaviours may be very obvious or quite subtle and can include movements, sounds, routines and rituals.

Movement – physical repetitive behaviour may be an action (like switching the lights on and off or flicking an elastic band) or a body movement (like pacing or hand flapping).

Vocalisation – vocal repetitive behaviour may include repetitive noises, laughter, and echolalia. Echolalia is when a person repeats (or echoes) phrases, words or parts of words that they have heard, and it often serves a purpose (like responding to a question, as a way to take a turn in a conversation, getting someone’s attention, requesting something or coping in the moment).

Routines and Rituals – Many routines are a normal part of everyday life , like getting ready for bed or brushing your teeth, and most of us have specific rituals for enjoyment ,like having something special for dinner once a week. Routines tend to be even more important to people who are autistic. They bring a sense of order and predictability to what might feel like a very chaotic, ever-changing, and sensation-driven world. This strong need for ‘sameness’ though can be misunderstood and interpreted as rigidity or a lack of flexibility by others.

People who are autistic can also have trouble generalising their skills. Generalisation means being able to apply something you’ve learned across different people, places and contexts.

Strong Interests

Strong Interests are also often associated with Autism. Sometimes people talk about ‘intense’ or ‘restricted’ interests.

Everyone has interests and things they are passionate about, items we are fond of, activities we enjoy and topics we love to talk and learn more about. This is important for making us feel good and adding to our sense of purpose.

Many people who are autistic have interests and passions that are a lot more intense and focused than others experience, often from a young age. Some people who are autistic also become attached to objects, or parts of objects, and an interest in collecting is also quite common. Interests can change over time or be lifelong.

Having a strong or highly focused interest can be an incredible strength and if supported can be channelled into meeting new people, studying or building a career.

In combination with other Autism characteristics, it can also pose some challenges however (like limiting the person’s involvement in other activities or impacting them socially).

Sensory Processing

Sensory Processing refers to the way the nervous system gathers, understands, organises, and uses information from our senses e.g. sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, balance, body awareness and interoception, and turns it into a response.

It is now widely accepted that people who are autistic process the information provided by their senses differently to others. These sensory differences may result in unusual or unexpected behavioural responses and can be affected by a person’s sensory sensitivities and preferences, environment, overall health and stress levels at any given time. Some people may quickly respond to just a tiny amount of sensory information (over-responsive), while others may be slower to respond because they need more sensory information (under-responsive).

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind is a term used to refer to the awareness that other peoples’ minds are different from our own or the ability to see things from another person’s point of view.  It involves being able to recognise and understand the thoughts, beliefs, desires, and intentions of other people and how they relate back to us.  When we interact with others, or think about them, we guess what they might be thinking or feeling.  We predict their intent, which helps us to work out how to respond.  Researchers have found that in Autism the development of theory of mind can be delayed. People with Autism may find it harder to ‘tune in’ to the perspectives of other people and as a result might misread the intentions of others or respond in an unexpected way during social interactions. 

Central Coherence

Central Coherence is about pulling information together and making sense of it based on the situation or circumstance.  It means being able to look for the ‘big picture’ and overall meaning, rather than getting side-tracked by the ‘nitty gritty’ or tiny details.  It is also about balancing the ‘big picture’ and the details—being able to work out how much detail to focus and which details are most relevant based on the situation we are in. Having difficulties with central coherence can make it hard to understand the subtle or unspoken rules in social situations (sometimes also called ‘Hidden Curriculum’). Some people with Autism may have central coherence difficulties which make it hard to navigate social situations.  On the flip side, having a weaker central coherence means a ‘keen eye’ for detail, and many people with Autism excel in this area.

Executive Function Skills

Executive Function Skills help us to organise, focus, remember and respond appropriately to multiple internal and external messages, and adjust our plans so that we can reach our goals.  We use this set of mental skills to manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions so that we can get things done.

Executive Function Skills include things like planning and prioritising, organisation, initiation (or getting started), focus, shifting attention, time management, sequencing, and self-monitoring. Executive functions are basically like a personal management system.

The executive functions’ role is a bit like a conductor of an orchestra—the conductor organises, directs and integrates the members, cuing the musicians so that they know when to play, how fast or slow to go, how loud or soft to play their instrument and when to stop. The conductor monitors and supports the ensemble to adjust if something sounds ‘off’ and pulls everything together—without the conductor, the music does not flow as smoothly.

Many people who are autistic have difficulty with Executive Functioning, and may have trouble with certain skills like reasoning, planning, staying organised, getting things done and regulating emotions. Some people may also find it hard to hold more than one train of thought at a time or do multiple things at once (multi-task). Challenges in Executive Function can make seemingly simple activities like cleaning your room, doing homework, or taking out the rubbish, really complicated. Fortunately, there are many strategies that can help. 

It is important to note that not all people with Autism have issues with all the aspects of Executive Function. On the surface, challenges in Executive Function, may look like:

  • Not listening
  • Easily distracted
  • Not following instructions
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Impulsive
  • Unmotivated
  • Messy or disorganised
  • Acting out and getting into trouble
  • Forgetful
  • Always late
  • Not following through
  • Starting things but not finishing them
  • Leaving things to the last minute
  • Spending too much time on tasks that are not important, or too little time on the tasks that are oversimplifying or over complicating

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