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What is autism?

Autism NZ Inc.

What is an autistic spectrum disorder?

Autistic spectrum disorder is a life-long developmental disability affecting social and communication skills. People with the disability can also have accompanying learning disabilities; but, whatever their general level of intelligence, everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world.Because of the differing degrees of severity and variety of manifestations, the term "autistic spectrum disorder" is often used to describe the whole range.

This term includes Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. People with Asperger syndrome are of average (or higher) intelligence and generally have fewer problems with language, often speaking fluently, though their words can sometimes sound formal or stilted.

What causes the condition?

The exact cause or causes have not yet been identified, but research has shown that genetic factors are important. In many (perhaps most) cases, autistic spectrum disorder may also be associated with various conditions affecting the brain, such as maternal rubella, tuberous sclerosis and encephalitis.

Onset is almost always from birth or before age three, although people with the condition may go through life without being diagnosed - and without receiving help that could help them live more fulfilled lives.

Who is affected?

"Classic" autism affects four times as many boys as girls; Asperger syndrome affects nine times as many boys as girls. It is found among all races, nationalities, and social classes.

Can people with autistic spectrum disorders be helped?

An autistic spectrum disorder is a life-long disability, but there are ways of helping, especially if a child is diagnosed early and receives appropriate intervention early in life.

Specialised education and structured support can really make a difference to a child's life, helping to maximise skills and achieve full potential in adulthood. An early diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder is essential in order to ensure appropriate support is given.

How common are autistic spectrum disorders?

1:1000 have autism; 1:300 have Asperger syndrome.

The estimated population of people with autistic spectrum disorders in New Zealand is over 17,500.

These figures include people at the higher functioning end of the spectrum who may not need specialist services and support, but who will still benefit from early recognition and sympathetic understanding of their special needs and unusual pattern of skills.

Recognising the disorder

Features of the disorder can vary widely from one person to another; there is no single feature that defines either autism or Asperger syndrome.

For example, a child with an autistic spectrum disorder may make eye contact, speak with perfect grammar or put an arm around another child who is crying. Occasional behaviour such as this doesn't exclude an autistic spectrum disorder; it's the overall pattern that's relevant, not the intermittent flashes of "normality".

The degree to which people with an autistic spectrum disorder are affected varies, but all those affected have impairments in social interaction, social communication and imagination. This is known as the "triad of impairments".

In addition to this triad, repetitive behaviour patterns are a notable feature, as is a resistance to changes in routine. People with autistic spectrum disorders often become obsessed with particular objects or behaviours, focussing on them to the exclusion of everything else.

Some people with autistic spectrum disorders, who may be severely disabled in most ways, will sometimes display talent for say, music, mathematics or technology. Some have a remarkable memory for dates and things that particularly interest them.

What do I do if I suspect an autistic spectrum disorder?

If you suspect an autistic spectrum disorder is present, have the person referred (or suggest they ask) for a specialist diagnosis and assessment as early as possible through their GP, Child Development Unit, Child and Family Guidance Centre or paediatrician.

This information has been reproduced with the permission of Autism New Zealand Inc . Autism NZ. provides support, resources and information on autistic spectrum disorders to those with these conditions, their family/whanau, caregivers and professionals working with them. Visit their website to find out more about autistic spectrum disorders