Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people communicate and interact with others.
Autism affects people in different ways. But most autistic people see, hear and experience the world differently from people without autism.
Autistic people may be given a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder or Asperger syndrome.
It's estimated about 1 in every 100 people in the UK is autistic. More boys and men are diagnosed with autism than girls and women.
But it's now thought older girls and women may manage the condition differently and are therefore underdiagnosed.
Although there's no "cure" for autism, with the right support many autistic people live fulfilled and active lives.
Signs and characteristics
Every autistic person is different, and the signs and characteristics will vary widely.
But there are 2 common characteristics:
- difficulties with social communication and interaction – autistic people may find it hard to join in conversations or make friends
- repetitive behaviour, routines and activities – such as fixed daily routines and repetitive body movements
Autistic people may also be under- or oversensitive to certain sounds, lights, colours and other things, known as sensory sensitivity.
These characteristics are present over time and have a noticeable effect on daily life.
Some health problems and conditions are more common in autistic people.
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) ↗
- learning disabilities ↗
- epilepsy ↗
- dyspraxia ↗
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) ↗
- anxiety ↗
- depression ↗
It's important that these conditions are identified and treated properly, and not thought of as part of the autism spectrum.
Getting a diagnosis for your child
The main signs of autism – difficulties with social communication and interaction – can often be recognised during early childhood.
But some signs of autism may not be noticeable until a change of situation, such as when the child starts nursery, changes school or leaves school.
See a GP or health visitor if you notice any of the signs of autism in your child, or if you're worried about your child's development.
It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns with your child's nursery or school.
Although you should be able to get educational, health and care support without a diagnosis of autism, getting one makes sure your child gets the right support when they need it.
Getting a diagnosis as an adult
Many adults with autism have not had a formal diagnosis.
But there are benefits to getting a diagnosis, including:
- understanding your differences
- access to support services
- protection under the Equality Act
See a GP if you think you may be autistic. If you're seeing a specialist doctor for other reasons, ask them to refer you for assessment of autism.
Caring for an autistic person
If you're caring for someone with autism, it's important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible.
Read more about care and support, including information on:
You can also call the Carers Direct helpline ↗ on 0300 123 1053.
Social care and support guide
- need help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability
- care for someone regularly because they're ill, elderly or disabled, including family members
Our guide to care and support ↗ explains your options and where you can get support.
What causes autism?
The exact cause of autism is unknown, but it's thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved.
In the past, some people believed the MMR vaccine ↗ caused autism.
But this has been investigated extensively in a number of major studies around the world, involving millions of children, and researchers have found no evidence of a link between MMR and autism.