What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders, this means they are caused by abnormalities in the way the brain develops and works.

They affect approximately 1 in 100 children and young people.

Children and young people with ASD have particular difficulties in communication, socialisation and behaviour.

Autism is a spectrum and this means that it can include a wide range of presentations from minimal impairment to significant difficulties. Some people with autism have unusually strong, narrow interests or repetitive behaviours.

People with ASD can fall anywhere in the range of intellectual ability. This can include intellectual disability, mainstream education or above average ability. About 10% of people with autism may also have some special skills and abilities.

In diagnosing autism, there must be evidence of unusual development in the first three years of life. Sometimes autism is sub-classified using additional terms such as Asperger’s syndrome for higher functioning people with intellectual ability in the average range. Many services now focus on whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a diagnosis, and then describe the level of impairment. This can sometimes be a more helpful way of thinking about and describing the range of possible presentations.

While we do not know exactly what causes autism, we do know research shows that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may account for the changes in brain development. In families with a child with ASD, there is an increased risk of ASD and other developmental difficulties in other siblings.

Typically, children and young people with ASD continue to experience similar difficulties, as they get older, although generally they become less severe over time. Availing of help as early as possible can make a big difference.  

Children and young people with ASD often need some special educational support. This may be in a mainstream school with adjustments or extra help to manage any difficulties or sometimes special school support is required. Sometimes, unstructured situations, such as break and lunch-times, can be very difficult for some children with ASD, who may be vulnerable to bullying or exploitation, particularly in post-primary schools.

Occasionally, children with ASD may require medication for associated difficulties such as difficult behaviours or troublesome anxiety.