What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex range of developmental conditions that affect how a person feels, thinks, experiences their environment, and interacts with others. It is believed around 1 in 70 individuals in Australia are on the autism spectrum.

The severity and characteristics of autism can vary greatly from individual to individual, and even change over time. In some cases, the signs of autism in children will start to display in babyhood, while other children will appear to develop normally for the first couple of years of life before symptoms start to show.

Early and accurate diagnosis is important so that the right intervention can be put into place as soon as possible to help children reach their full potential. Because the severity and signs of autism in children can vary greatly, support and services need to be highly tailored and a precise care program should be developed once the child’s needs have been established.

What areas of development are affected?

As individual’s abilities and characteristics vary greatly, there is no simple answer to the question “what is autism?”. Perhaps a more appropriate question would be “what is autism like for your child?”. However, a common thread is for children on the autism spectrum to experience challenges within three areas of development.


Children with autism often experience difficulties around language and communication. Speech may be delayed, and they might prefer to use sounds, signs, pictures, and gestures to communicate instead of spoken words. Signs of autism in children include repeating words or phrases that may seem out of context, as well as taking extra time to understand spoken information.

Social Interactions

Children with autism face challenges in social interactions due to difficulties relating to other people. They often do not share other’s experiences and emotions and may play alone even when other children are around. They can sometimes appear to be lacking awareness of others.

Restrictive & repetitive behaviour

Children with autism often have a liking for sameness (words or movements) and find comfort in following routines. Common signs of autism in children include unusual ways of playing (for example lining cars up in a perfect line rather than playing imaginatively with them) or an obsessively strong interest in a particular topic.

Signs of autism in children and diagnostic criteria

To answer the question “what is autism?” and learn to recognise the signs of autism in children, it can be helpful to look at the diagnostic criteria that healthcare professionals use when evaluating symptoms. The criteria (DSM-V) were developed by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 and is the standard reference used in Australia to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Diagnostic Criteria A: Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history:

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviours used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behaviour to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Diagnostic criteria B: Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history:

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behaviour (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).
  4. Hyper- or hyperactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Recognising signs of autism in children and what to do?

Understanding what is autism and recognising the signs of autism in children is the first step towards the appropriate referrals for diagnosis and treatment. If you have observed any signs of autism in your child you should first speak to your GP. They will be able to refer you to a developmental paediatrician or a multidisciplinary team at your local assessment centre for a thorough assessment. If a diagnosis is confirmed, it is important to consider a unique autism care program to help support your child in having a great quality of life.

What resources are available for carers?

There are a variety of resources available for parents and caregivers to find out more about ‘what is autism?, the signs of autism in children, and the path to diagnosis. Here is a list of some reputable resources of information:

Support and Treatments

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

Children with autism can still live a wonderful life, learn and be independent. While there are many options, Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention programs using the principles of ABA have been shown to address the characteristics of autism. ABA is the only intervention method with established research to show positive outcomes for children with autism.

Contact us for more information

Find out how behaviours of concern can be addressed to give your child a better chance to learn. Get our Parent Info Pack and a free phone consultation to find out the range of options available for your child’s unique situation.

Call us on 1300 752 617

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