What is autism, what are the signs and symptoms in children and what does being on the spectrum mean?

What is autism, what are the signs and symptoms in children and what does being on the spectrum mean?

December 7, 2018

Here's everything you need to know about traits of people with ASD, the signs and symptoms and the support which is available in the UK.

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an incurable, lifelong developmental condition that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

It affects around one in 100 people in the UK and is three to four times more common in boys than in girls.

Many people with ASD find it hard to understand other people's feelings and emotions, and they may have difficulty holding conversations.

When they are young, their language development may take longer and they can struggle to use facial expressions, using gestures to communicate instead.

They may also find it hard to connect with other people and to hold eye contact with unfamiliar individuals.

Many children with ASD like to follow a routine, and changes to this can cause distress.

High functioning autism is an informal term some people use to describe those on the autism spectrum disorder.

How is autism spectrum disorder tested during pregnancy?

There are no tests that are used to screen for ASD during pregnancy.

Symptoms are usually present before a child reaches the age of three, although a diagnosis can be made later in life.

To make an accurate assessment, information is usually drawn from GPs, nursery or school staff and speech and occupational therapists.

Physical examinations are often carried out in order to rule out other potential causes of the symptoms.

These health implications may also be triggered by underlying conditions including Down's syndrome or neurofibromatosis.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

The NHS outlines the signs of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in school-age children.

Spoken language

  • preferring to avoid using spoken language
  • speech that sounds very monotonous or flat
  • speaking in pre-learned phrases, rather than putting together individual words to form new sentences
  • seeming to talk "at" people, rather than sharing a two-way conversation

Responding to others

  • taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm, metaphors or figures of speech
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else

Interacting with others

  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age, or having few close friends, despite attempts to form friendships
  • not understanding how people normally interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell
  • being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations – for example, speaking very formally at a party and then speaking to total strangers in a familiar way
  • not enjoying situations and activities that most children of their age enjoy
  • rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact


  • repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, or flicking their fingers
  • playing in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often preferring to play with objects rather than people
  • developing a highly specific interest in a particular subject or activity
  • preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to their normal routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste
  • unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately

Is there a cure for autism spectrum disorder?

There isn’t a cure for autism, but there are a number of ways you can support those with it.

Speech and language therapists and educational support staff can help children and parents with day-to-day life.

Depending on the individual, there are a number of treatments that can treat symptoms or conditions associated with ASD, such as ADHD and sleeping problems.

What are the early signs of autism spectrum disorder?

One of the major traits of ASD is challenges with social interaction.

This can include language and communicative difficulties in children, including lack of eye contact and a struggle with body language and gestures.

They may show a lack of empathy with other’s emotions and many need routine to feel comfortable.

Babies and small infants with ASD may not use vocal sounds or babbling to communicate.

What causes autism spectrum disorder?

The exact cause is unknown, but can occur as a result of a number of genetic, environmental and unknown factors.

Many scientists think that a child inherits certain genes that make them more susceptible to ASD from their parents.

Other researchers claim these genes are only triggered if they are exposed to certain environmental factors.

Some of the possible causes are thought to be being born prematurely before 35 weeks of pregnancy and being exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Other theories include defects in the sensory nerves being the cause.

In the past, some have thought flu during pregnancy to be a cause, but this has been disproved in one study.

Other studies claim that children born to mums with allergies are more at risk of autism and ADHD.

And scientists in Denmark have found that the later you leave it to have kids, the higher the chance your baby will be diagnosed with this condition.

When is Autism Awareness Day?

World Autism Awareness Day is on April 2 every year, and aims to raise awareness and acceptance of people with autism worldwide.

It is observed by the member states of the United Nations, and began in 2007.

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