Autism and Asperger's syndrome: information for parents, carers and anyone who works with young people

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Autism is the central condition in the group of difficulties known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) or Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC). For simplicity, we will use the term ASD. They are neurodevelopmental disorders –which 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 communicating
  • being around people socially and with their
  • behaviour

They have a range of intellectual ability from having severe learning disabilities, to being more academically able and in mainstream education. About 10% of people with autism may also have some special skills and abilities.

For a diagnosis of autism, there must be evidence of unusual development in the first 3 years of life. Asperger's syndrome is a term used for some higher functioning people on the autism spectrum who have intellectual ability in the average range and no delays in learning to talk.  Many often have intense interests such as train timetables, buses or dinosaurs.

What are the causes?

The exact cause of ASD is still unknown, although research shows that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may account for changes in brain development. There is an increased risk of ASD and other developmental difficulties in the brothers and sisters of children with ASD.

What are the characteristics?

The characteristics of children and young people with ASD will vary depending upon their age, developmental level and how severely they are affected.

The difficulties are also likely to change over time. Parents are usually (but not always) the first to have some concerns about their child’s development, and difficulties may be noticed from as early as infancy. Overall, the problems and behaviours can be divided into three main areas:

Difficulties with communication

Children and young people with ASD have difficulties with both verbal communication (speaking) and non-verbal communication (eye contact, expressions and gestures). Some children may not be able to talk at all or have very limited speech.

Some have good speech and language skills, but still have difficulty using their speech socially or to sustain a conversation. Their use of language may be overly formal or 'adult-like'. They may talk at length about their own topics of interest, but find it hard to understand the back and forth nature of two-way conversations.

Difficulties with social interaction

Children and young people with ASD have difficulty understanding the 'social world', for example, they often have difficulty recognising and understanding their feelings and those of people around them. This in turn can make it difficult for them to make friends. They may prefer to spend time alone, or appear insensitive to others because of their difficulties understanding social rules and expectations.

Difficulties with behaviour, interests and activities

Children and young people with ASD often prefer familiar routines (e.g. taking the same route to school every day, putting their clothes on in a particular order), and tend to have difficulties dealing with change, which they find difficult and distressing.

They may also have unusual intense and specific interests, such as in electronic gadgets or lists of dates. They might use toys more like 'objects' to line up, for example. They may have unusual responses to particular experiences from their environment such as tastes, smells, sounds and textures. For example, they could be very sensitive to the sound of a hair dryer, or the feel of certain materials against their skin.

Some children show unusual repetitive movements such as hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complicated whole body movements.

What can be done to help?

There are no known cures for ASD, but children and families can be helped in many ways. Help includes:

  • being given information about the condition
  • managing behavioural difficulties
  • developing social communication and emotional skills
  • medication in some cases.

There are various approaches available to help with communication and learning, and for children with ASD, it is often better to intervene as early as possible.

Usually, there will be several people involved in the care of a child with ASD, such as a speech and language therapist, psychologist, occupational therapist and a medical doctor (paedicatrician or child psychiatrist).

There might also be specialist courses on parenting, parent support groups, advice on how to help the wider family and more general advice about benefits.


This leaflet is based on material produced by The Royal College of Psychiatrists.  (
© March 2012  - The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Reproduced with permission.

MHAF would like to thank the Royal College of Psychiatrists, United Kingdom, for kindly granting permission to use this leaflet  based on material produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists ( © March 2012.