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Understanding autism spectrum disorder

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often experience difficulties with social skills and behaviour. Learn more about ASD, coping and supporting others.

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What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

ASD, sometimes called autism, is a complicated disorder that affects how a person experiences and processes their thoughts, feelings and environment.

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which means that it often appears early in life, such as when you are a baby or child (when your brain is still developing). The official diagnosis is called ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ – the spectrum part is used to explain the differences in people’s experiences, as no two people are the same.

People with ASD experience difficulties with social skills and behaviour.

"This is my story about facing and overcoming living with autism."

Behaviours

People with ASD experience different behaviours, including:

Unusual reactions to what they see, hear, smell, touch or taste. They may react in unexpected ways, such as not feeling pain, becoming fascinated with touching objects, only eating foods of a certain colour or texture, or becoming overwhelmed by smells.

A need for routine. People with ASD might insist on ‘sameness’ or follow ‘rituals’, which can look like needing to do things in the same order. They can get very distressed when things change or happen in a way they aren’t used to.

Movement. People with ASD might move, behave or speak in ways that seem unusual or are repetitive. People with ASD also self-stimulate (called ‘stimming’) which can help them feel calmer when stressed or overwhelmed. Stimming is repetitive behaviours that can include things like hand flapping or rocking.

Strong interest in a particular topic or subject. People with ASD might became fixated on something they are interested in, in a way that seems unusual or extreme. For example, they might be intensely interested in collecting keys, or learn everything they can about different types of ants. Interests vary from person to person.

Social skills

People with ASD experience difficulties with friendships and other relationships. Some of these challenges include: 

  • Communication. In usual social interactions, people share attention, empathise with each other and have ‘back and forth’ conversations, e.g. asking and answering questions. People with ASD may find these communication skills challenging.
  • Body language. Things like eye contact, facial expressions and gestures are an important part of communication and are called ‘nonverbal cues’. People with ASD can find it hard to use or understand nonverbal cues.
  • Forming relationships. As a result of communication and body language difficulties, people with ASD can find it hard to form and maintain relationships. This can include trouble making friends, or finding it hard to change their behaviours to suit the situation, e.g. laughing when someone is injured.

ASD is a lifelong disorder that is often diagnosed in early childhood. Being on a spectrum, it can be mild, moderate or severe, and treatments will vary depending on how severe each case is. ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was used in the past to describe mild ASD and some people may refer to themselves as ‘being Aspie’ or 'neurodivergent' (displaying different thought patterns or behaviour compared to what's considered to be the norm), when talking about their own experiences of ASD.

Coping with ASD

The majority of treatment focuses on treating symptoms and trying to reduce impairment. Some people with less severe ASD might have insight into, and understanding of their diagnosis and experiences, and find personal and clever ways to develop social skills, manage behaviours and cope.

We asked, you answered - what's your best ASD coping strategy?
Stimming strategies
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Supporting someone with ASD

If you have a family member or a friend who is living with ASD, there are things you can do to support them:

Be accepting. Be accepting and patient of behaviours that may seem unusual (these may actually be coping strategies). Appreciate the person for who they are.

Be an advocate. You can help educate others about ASD. Sometimes people fear what they don’t understand, or talk about ASD in negative or hurtful ways. You can help by giving accurate information, and help others see your friend or family member for who they are as a person, rather than only focusing on their diagnosis.

Communicate openly. People with ASD may struggle to understand things like metaphors, sarcasm, etc., and may say things others wouldn't, e.g. saying something factual that might hurt your feelings. Be honest, communicate clearly, don't make assumptions or jump to conclusions and ask questions to clarify or check understanding.

Have a plan if a friend with ASD becomes overwhelmed. Recognise triggers (especially sensory sensitivities, e.g. loud noises) and signs they are becoming overwhelmed. Having a plan to help them feel safe, calm and find a space that is less overwhelming can help when things become too much to deal with.

If you or someone you care about are living with ASD, there’s support available.

You can connect with a professional, like a GP, who can refer you to specialist support in your area.

You can also chat with Kids Helpline. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 12/11/2020

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