Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Young boy playing with lego

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition typically diagnosed in early childhood. The main characteristics of ASD are social and communication difficulties and repetitive restricted behaviours. Those with ASD have differences in the way their brain develops and functions. This leads to differences in how they think, communicate, interact with others, and interpret the world. ASD is caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors, but the exact cause is unknown. 

People with ASD may experience difficulties with social skills and verbal and nonverbal communication, such as interpreting body language and facial expressions. This can make it hard to interact with others and form relationships. People with ASD may also engage in repetitive behaviours, have a need for routine, and struggle with change. These symptoms can lead to challenges in many areas of life, such as at school, work, and in relationships.

ASD is called a spectrum disorder because it captures a wide range of experiences, symptoms, and levels of severity and impairment. Individuals with ASD will have strengths and weaknesses in different areas and their symptoms may change over time.

Common symptoms
  • Difficulty with social interactions and communication skills.
  • Repetitive and limited patterns of behaviour.
  • Struggle to develop and maintain relationships with others.
  • Difficulty using and understanding nonverbal communication [e.g. facial expression, body language].
  • Difficulty understanding others emotions, actions, points of view.
  • Difficulty with change - Need for routine, insists on sameness.
  • Engages in repetitive movements [e.g. rocking, hand flapping].
  • Intense focused interests [e.g. knows a lot about a certain topic].
  • Reduced or inconsistent eye contact.
  • Lack of facial expression or other expression of emotion.
  • Sensory issues - May be more sensitive to light, touch and sound, and less sensitive to temperature and pain.
  • Prefer to play alone and may appear ‘in their own world’.
  • Does not engage in ‘make-believe’ or imaginative play.
  • Resistant to holding/ cuddling as a baby.
  • Delayed speech development or does not speak.
  • Repeats words or phrases.
  • Abnormal rhythm or tone when speaking - May sound ‘sing-song’ or flat/ lack emotion.
  • Appears not to understand or follow simple directions/ questions.
  • Special talent or strength in a particular area [‘savant’].
How common is in the general population
It is estimated that 1% of the general population will be diagnosed with ASD.
Gender differences
ASD is more common in males than females.
ASD is usually diagnosed in early childhood, between birth and 3 years old. Symptoms are often seen in the first year of life. However, a person may not be diagnosed till adolescence or adulthood.
Typical Course
ASD is chronic; it is a difference in the way the brain works. Symptoms may change over time and therapy can minimise the impact of some symptoms.
Common Comorbid (concurrent) Conditions
Anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, eating disorders, intellectual disability, sleep problems.
Common treatments

If you are concerned about your child’s development and think they are showing signs of ASD, or think you may have the symptoms of ASD, speak with your doctor and they may refer you to a specialist. 

ASD is a difference in the way the brain functions. The goal of treatment is not to cure ASD, but to address challenges, teach skills, and build on strengths so the individual can achieve their highest potential. 

Psychological and Behaviour Therapy:

Behaviour therapy aims to teach skills and new behaviours, reduce harmful or unhelpful behaviours, improve communication and social skills, and build on strengths. Behaviour therapy commonly uses positive reinforcement techniques, such as token reward systems. 

It is common for people with ASD to experience other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and depression. Talk therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy, can be useful in addressing these symptoms and improving emotional well being. 

Family Therapy:

Treatment for a child with ASD may include family therapy. Family therapy aims to teach parents how they can help their child to improve their social and communication skills and other ways they can support the child at home. 


There is no medication to treat ASD. People with ASD are at an increased risk of other mental health conditions, such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, and depression. Medication may be used to treat symptoms of these other conditions.

Other Support and Treatment:

Input from other specialists such speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, or paediatricians may be needed depending on individual needs.

It is important to speak with your child’s teachers to ensure your child gets the support they need at school. Some children with ASD may require extra support or a special education programme.