what is autism spectrum disorder?

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What is autism spectrum disorder (autism)?

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way individuals interact with others and the world around them. It affects how a person thinks, feels, experiences their environment and interacts with other people. 

Autism isn't experienced the same way for everyone. There can be great variation in the way people learn, think and problem solve. Everyone will have their own unique strengths, skills and challenges resulting in needing more or less support with studies, work and relationships.

The good news is that a better understanding of autism has led to ways that help people navigate all areas of their lives.

Note: Autism spectrum disorder is a clinical definition that includes conditions that were previously called: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. Some people who experience autism prefer the term autistic, others prefer person with autism and some prefer neurodiverse – it’s always best to check with the person which term they prefer.

What are the characteristics of autism?

People who experience autism may think, feel, learn or behave in ways that are not typical. They may experience differences in how they:

  • communicate and interact socially
  • cope with their environment  
  • think or process information.

Some people might face challenges in social interactions. This may include communication, understanding typical social norms or participating in ‘small talk’.  

Some people might only have interests in a small number of special topics. These are called restricted interests and can lead to a person having great depth of understanding and knowledge about those topics.

Other people experiencing autism might display repetitive and different behaviours that include bodily movements called ‘stims’– like hand flapping, body rocking, arranging and rearranging objects – or verbal sounds or words. These behaviours can help calm people and also help them cope with stressors in their environment.

Some people experiencing autism may have unusual reactions to sensations such as light, touch or noise. This is called sensory sensitivity. They might become upset or very uncomfortable leading them to avoid certain objects, experiences or places. This can affect how a person goes about their daily life. It can interrupt participation in certain activities or interactions. It can also lead to a preference for routines and habits that if disrupted, can cause high levels of anxiety and distress. It can be different for each person.

Some people may have a rich and creative imagination, but find tasks like organising what they need for the day challenging. Others may experience difficulty recalling recent events, or following lengthy, complicated instructions. This can make actions that require multi-tasking or have a time pressure challenging. For some people, having information about new concepts and tasks presented in a visual way can be helpful.

What causes autism and when do characteristics appear?

Around one in 100 people experience autism. It’s thought that a mix of genetic and other environmental factors change the way the brain develops: vaccines do not cause autism. There was concern in the community about a possible link between vaccines and autism, but that study has since been discredited and withdrawn by the journal. Characteristics of autism are usually noticeable in the first two years of life but may not be recognised until later. Some people on the autism spectrum can go undiagnosed into late teens or adulthood, and your sex assigned at birth can also determine how your characteristics present.

How can autism affect other areas of life?

Autism can impact a person’s ability to meet expectations from school, uni or TAFE, peer groups or workplaces.  Without support, education and understanding this can result in them being left out of activities, or miss out on the benefits that education, work or social groups normally provide. Without support and understanding, this can lead to discrimination and disadvantages which may impact their mental health.

Some people who experience autism may also experience anxiety, (in particular social anxiety), depression, or challenges with language. Other conditions that can be diagnosed with autism include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

The good news is that with understanding and the right support and accommodations from those around them, people experiencing autism can enjoy meaningful lives and participate in education, employment and relationships.

Getting help  

People who experience autism may require coordinated care with a range of services that reflect their changing needs throughout their lives. This includes ongoing assessment and treatment by a multidisciplinary team.

Social Skills Training can be useful for people who want to learn strategies that help with navigating relationships, social norms, and improving communication. This includes dating etiquette, handling disagreements and starting and maintaining conversations.

GPs can discuss eligibility for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS is a national scheme that funds support for eligible people.

It can help also help to speak to someone about your worries, such as a family member, teacher, Elder, trusted adult or friend. Speaking to your general practitioner (GP), local headspace centre, or eheadspace can be a great first step in getting the right support and information – they can work with you and the important people in your life. 


Look after yourself

Alongside professional help, there are things you can do to support your mental health and wellbeing:

  • connect with others
  • communicate your needs and let trusted people know the unique way autism affects your life and how they can support you
  • stay active, spend time doing nice things
  • eat well
  • cut back on alcohol and other drugs
  • get into life
  • get enough sleep
  • learn new ways to handle tough times.


For more information visit eheadspace for online and phone support or find your nearest headspace centre

Other useful websites: 





The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. 

Last reviewed

24 August 2023

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