About Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long neuro-biological disorder. ASDs are developmental disabilities characterised by marked difficulties in social interaction, impaired communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. There is no cure for Autism, but with appropriate evidence-based intervention therapies such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), Discrete Trial Training (DTT) and appropriate Sensory Diet (management of sensory needs), people with Autism Spectrum Disorders can greatly improve their strengths in these areas.

The word 'spectrum' is used because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an ASD experience can vary widely. ASDs include Autism, Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (not otherwise specified) also known as PDDnos or atypical Autism (DSM-IV). Sometimes the word "autism" is used to refer to all ASDs. The criteria for diagnosis of Autism changed in 2014, with the release of DSM-V.

Approximately 1 in 100 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, with rates of about 1 in 70 boys. Early diagnosis and early access to intervention services are key in supporting children with ASD to improve their social, communicative and behavioural skills and abilities, and reach their potential, although it is important to remember that individuals with autism are life-long learners, and will continue to develop and gain skills throughout their life time.

The 3 main areas of difficulty experienced by people with ASD are:

1. Impaired Social Skills

May include:

  • Limited use and understanding of non-verbal communication such as eye gaze, facial expression and gesture
  • Difficulties forming and sustaining friendships
  • Lack of seeking to share enjoyment, interest and activities with other people
  • Difficulties with social and emotional responsiveness

2. Impaired Communication Skills

May include:

  • Delayed language development
  • Difficulties initiating and sustaining conversations
  • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language such as repeating phrases from television
  • Limited imaginative or make-believe play

3. Restricted and Repetitive Interests, Activities and Behaviours

May include:

  • Unusually intense or focused interests
  • Stereotyped and repetitive body movements such as hand flapping and spinning
  • Repetitive use of objects such as repeatedly flicking a doll's eyes or lining up toys
  • Adherence to non-functional routines such as insisting on travelling the same route home each day

In addition to these main areas of difficulties, individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder may also have:

  • Unusual sensory interests such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving objects
  • Sensory sensitivities including avoidance of everyday sounds and textures such as hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and sand
  • Intellectual impairment or learning difficulties

Many people with Autism Spectrum Disorder also have co-existing conditions such as:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)
  • Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD)
  • Bi-polar Disorder
  • Tourettes Syndrome
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Epilepsy
  • Sleep Disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Depression
  • Food Allergies and Intolerances
  • Gastrointestinal issues

What are the different types of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The term ASD is an umbrella description which refers to three different diagnoses. Regardless of the specific diagnosis given, individuals with an ASD will experience difficulties in many different social situations such as school and work.

Autism (also called Autistic Disorder)

The diagnosis of Autism is given to individuals with impairments in social interaction and communication as well as restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours which are generally evident prior to three years of age. Individuals must meet a minimum of 6 out of 12 criteria for Autism listed in the DSM IV to receive a diagnosis of Autism.

Asperger's Syndrome (sometimes referred to as Asperger's Disorder)

Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome have difficulties with social interaction and social communication as well as restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours. Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome do not have a significant delay in the acquisition of language, and there is usually no significant delay in cognitive abilities or self-help skills. Asperger's Syndrome is often diagnosed at a later age than Autism, as speech usually develops at the expected age. Individuals must meet a minimum of 4 out of 12 criteria for Autism listed in the DSM IV to receive a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder not otherwise specified (PDDnos - sometimes referred to as atypical autism)

The diagnosis of PDDnos or atypical autism is made when an individual has a marked social impairment but does not meet sufficient criteria for a diagnosis of either Autism or Asperger's Syndrome. These individuals may also have communication impairments and/or restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours. Individuals must meet a minimum of 4 out of 12 criteria for Autism listed in the DSM IV to receive a diagnosis of PDDnos.

What causes Autism?

There is no single known cause for Autism Spectrum Disorder, although researchers agree that a strong genetic predisposition is a likely factor. Research is continuing in this area.

Important information regarding changes to the diagnosis of ASD

The information detailed above is descriptive of ASD diagnosis under DSM-4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, version 4). For individuals assessed and diagnosed with Autism from May 2014 and after, the new criteria under DSM-5 applies. Asperger's Syndrome and PDDnos are not included in DSM-5. However, all formal diagnoses made under DSM-4 prior to May 2014, including those of Asperger's Syndrome and PDDnos are still considered to be legitimate diagnoses for legal, medical and educational purposes, and do not require a reassessment under DSM-5. Social Communication Disorder is a new diagnosis added to DSM-5. It is not yet clear whether this new diagnosis will be eligible for registration with Disability Services Commission and funding for Education Assistance through Schools Plus in public schools.

Information on the full Diagnostic Criteria:

DSM-4 Autism Spectrum Disorder - Diagnostic Criteria

DSM-5 Autism Spectrum Disorder - Diagnostic Criteria