What is an Autism Spectrum Disorder?
An Autism Spectrum Disorder is a life-long developmental disability affecting a person’s ability to interpret and make sense of the world and what is happening around them. It is a disorder of development that affects the areas of:
Language skills – understanding and using spoken language and non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language may be difficult.
Social behaviour – they have trouble understanding social interactions, which affects their ability to play or interact with others.
Cognitive and thinking skills – thinking may be difficult and they may engage in restricted, obsessive or repetitive behaviour.
Autism Spectrum Disorder includes Asperger syndrome, which is a form of autism at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. People with Asperger syndrome are of average (or higher) intelligence and generally have fewer problems with language, often speaking fluently. However, their choice of words can sometimes sound formal and ideas which are abstract, metaphorical or idiomatic may cause them confusion and are likely to be taken literally.
Unlike individuals with ‘classic’ autism, who often appear withdrawn and uninterested in the world around them, many people with Asperger syndrome try hard to be sociable and do not dislike human contact. However, they still find it hard to understand non-verbal signals, including facial expressions.
Everyone is unique
Every person with ASD is different and there is no single feature that defines either Autism or Asperger syndrome. They might have:
- severe problems in each area
- mild problems in each area
- more difficulty in one or two areas.
People with the disability may also have accompanying learning disabilities. These difficulties will vary as they age. They also depend on factors such as their gender, personality, family and cultural circumstances, and intellectual ability.
Because of the differing degrees of severity and variety of manifestations, the term Autism Spectrum Disorder is often used to describe the whole range.
Onset is almost always from birth or before age three, although people with the condition may go through life without being diagnosed – and without receiving help that could help them live more fulfilled lives.
Who is affected?
1 person in 100 has an Autism Spectrum Disorder – this includes people who have Asperger syndrome. The estimated population of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders in New Zealand is approximately 40,000. These figures include people at the higher functioning end of the spectrum who may not need specialist services and support, but who will still benefit from early recognition and sympathetic understanding of their special needs and unusual pattern of skills.
“Classic” autism affects four times as many boys as girls; Asperger syndrome affects nine times as many boys as girls. It is found among all races, nationalities, and social classes.
If you suspect your child may be affected by ASD, a specialist diagnosis and assessment is the first step.