What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex range of neurodevelopmental disorders that may impact how a person feels, thinks, experiences their environment, and interacts with others. Statistically, it is believed that around 1 in 70 individuals in Australia are on the autism spectrum.

The severity and characteristics of autism can vary greatly from individual to individual, and even change over time – this is why it is regarded as a spectrum disorder. In some cases, the signs of autism in children will start to display in babyhood, while other children will appear to develop normally for the first couple of years of life before symptoms start to show.

Early and accurate diagnosis is important so that the right intervention can be put into place as soon as possible to help children reach their full potential. Because the severity and signs of autism in children can vary greatly, support and services need to be highly tailored and a precise program should be developed once the child’s needs have been established.

What areas of development are affected?

As all individual’s abilities and characteristics vary greatly, there is no simple answer to the question “What is autism?”. However, a common thread is for children on the autism spectrum to experience challenges within three areas of development.


Children with autism often experience difficulties with language and communication. Speech may be delayed, and they might prefer to use sounds, signs, pictures, and gestures to communicate instead of spoken words. Signs of autism in children include repeating words or phrases that may seem out of context, as well as taking extra time to understand spoken information.

Social Interactions

Children with autism face challenges in social interactions due to difficulties relating to other people. They often do not share other’s experiences and emotions and may play alone even when other children are around. They can sometimes appear to be lacking awareness of others.

Restrictive & Repetitive Behaviour

Children with autism often have a liking for sameness (words or movements) and find comfort in following routines. Common signs of autism in children include unusual ways of playing (for example lining cars up in a perfect line rather than playing imaginatively with them) or an obsessively strong interest in a particular topic.

Recognising signs of autism in children and what to do?

Understanding what is autism and recognising the signs of autism in children is the first step towards the appropriate referrals for diagnosis and treatment. If you have observed any signs of autism in your child you should first speak to your GP. They will be able to refer you to a Developmental Paediatrician or a multidisciplinary team at your local assessment centre for a thorough assessment. If a diagnosis is confirmed, it is important to consider a holistic program to help support your child in having a great quality of life.

What resources are available for carers?

There are a variety of resources available for parents and caregivers to find out more about ‘What is autism?, the signs of autism in children, and the path to diagnosis. Here is a list of some reputable resources of information:

  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT).
  • The Autism Awareness website includes a list of common signs of autism in children and diagnosis criteria.
  • Autism Speaks – formal diagnosis of autism in accordance with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Helpful information about ‘What is Autism?’ on the Raising Children Network website or on the Autism Awareness Australia website: Autism: What next?

Support and treatments

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)

Children with autism can still live a wonderful life, learn and be independent. While there are many options, Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention programs using the principles of ABA have been shown to address the three key characteristics of autism spectrum disorders as well as some of the key challenges associated with developmental delays. There is strong evidence to show the effectiveness of ABA for improving the skills and development of children with autism spectrum disorders (ABA). Given the intensive nature of the intervention, it can be delivered as a stand-alone program; however, is also effective when delivered in parallel with other programs such as Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Psychology.

Contact us for more information

Find out how behaviours of concern can be addressed to give your child a better chance to learn. Get our Parent Info Pack and a free phone consultation to find out the range of options available for your child’s unique situation.

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