Skip to Main Content Skip to Site Map Skip to Accessibility Statement

Autism / ASD / Asperger’s / ASC


Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are part of a range of conditions known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Sometimes ASC is used as a description in other countries (Autism Spectrum Condition). They affect the way the brain processes information.


What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disorder that can cause problems with social interaction, language skills and physical behaviour. People with autism may also be more sensitive to everyday sensory information.

To people with the condition the world can appear chaotic with no clear boundaries, order or meaning.

The disorder varies from mild to so severe that a person may be almost unable to communicate and need round-the-clock care.

Research has revealed that people with autism have brains that function in a number of different ways to those without the condition.

Causes of Autistic spectrum disorders

  • Estimates suggest that one in 100 people in the UK have autism
  • Four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism
  • The number of diagnosed cases of autism has increased over the past 20 years, thought to be due to better diagnosis
  • There is no cure but there are a range of interventions available

Sources: NHS Choices/National Autistic Society

The exact causes of autism are not yet understood but researchers believe genetic, environmental and neurological factors play a part.

In fact autism is probably not one single condition but encompasses a group of disorders that have their roots in a variety of different causes, but which result in similar problems.

Researchers are examining a number of specific genes that could contribute to the disorder. It’s likely that autism occurs when a small number of genes interact in a specific way, possibly linked to some external event or factor.

The genetic link means a predisposition to autism may be inherited and can run in families. Brothers or sisters of a child with the condition are 5-6% more likely to develop it themselves.

A variety of other environmental factors that affect development before, during or soon after birth, may also play a part.

Between 44% – 52% of autistic people may have a learning disability.
Between 48% – 56% of autistic people do not have a learning disability.


How does autism affect communication? 

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, communication development happens differently and more slowly. Because of the sensory challenges associated with the disorder, children with autism might seem more interested in environmental sounds, like the whirring of a fan or vacuum than in the sound of people talking. They may seem distracted or even seem not to hear what people say.

No one knows exactly why, but children with ASD do not naturally imitate in the same way as other children. They either don’t imitate at all or they imitate whole sentences (called echoes) without always understanding the meaning of the things they are saying.  Among children who don’t use echoes, first words are often delayed and are sometimes unusual (like numbers or letters of the alphabet).

Children with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may have an extensive vocabulary and use long sentences. But when it comes to social communication, much more is required than that the ability to use words. Body language, facial expressions, eye gaze, tone of voice – non-verbal cues like these can often tell us more about what people think and feel than the words they use. To be successful communicators, children need to know how to interpret and respond to these cues, and how to use these cues themselves.

Most children begin paying attention to non-verbal cues as infants when they search their parents’ faces for support, acknowledgement and cues to what’s going on in their parents’ mind. If they see mom looking at a bottle, for example, they figure out that mom’s going to offer that bottle to them. But for children with Asperger syndrome, mild autism or social communication difficulties, the ability to “tune in” to the thoughts and feelings of others often does not develop in the same way or at the same pace as other children.

Difficulty empathizing and seeing other points of view can make having two-sided conversations a huge challenge for these children. Because they often do not know what to say or do in social situations, these children can find it difficult to make friends and play with their peers.


Information resources to help with communication issues