What is autism?

Autism is a spectrum of neurodevelopmental conditions that impact how people communicate, socialise, and interact with the world around them. You may have heard autism referred to asAsperger’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Around 1% of the population is autistic.

Every autistic person is different. However, behaviours associated with autism can include: 

Unlike eating disorders, autism is not a mental illness which should be cured. Instead, autistic people experience both strengths and difficulties which should be valued. The PEACE Pathway focuses on creating a welcoming and supportive environment which helps, not hinders, autistic people. Where autistic people do experience difficulties relating to their autism, the pathway firstly focuses on making sure that these difficulties are not being made worse by the person’s environment. For example, normally manageable sensory differences may turn into a big problem in overwhelming sensory surroundings. Secondly, the pathway supports the individual in coping with or adapting around the difficulty where appropriate. This can include using flashcards if the autistic person struggles with communicating, or exploring how to make a person’s diet more sensory-friendly. 

Who does it affect?

Autism is often associated with children, but this is a misconception. As autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, it affects people across their lifespan. This means that an autistic child will become an autistic adult. Whilst most people are diagnosed as autistic in childhood, some people may not receive a diagnosis until they are an adult (Lai & Baron-Cohen, 2015). 

Another misconception is that only men can be autistic. However, women can also be autistic. Not receiving a diagnosis is a particular problem for autistic women, as their social and communication differences may be subtle and misinterpreted. Some autistic people may also develop coping strategies that “mask” or “camouflage” these differences. Feeling that you are different and not knowing why, and using these strategies, can be exhausting and contribute to mental health difficulties (Tierney, Burns, & Kilbey, 2016). Therefore, autism in women may be undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or overshadowed by a mental health problem.

What is autism caused by? 

We do not know what causes autism. It is likely that there is no single cause, and there might be multiple genetic and environmental factors that affect people differently. We do know that autism is not caused by bad parenting, how someone is brought up, or vaccines. 

What other conditions are associated with autism? 

Contributed by:


1) Besag F. M. (2017). Epilepsy in patients with autism: links, risks and treatment challenges. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 14, 1–10.

2) Chaidez, V., Hansen, R. L., & Hertz-Picciotto, I. (2014). Gastrointestinal problems in children with autism, developmental delays or typical development. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(5), 1117–1127.

3) Emerson, E. and Baines, S. (2010) The estimated prevalence of autism among adults with learning disabilities in England. Stockton-on-Tees: Improving Health and Lives.

4) Lai, M.C. & Baron-Cohen, S. (2015). Identifying the lost generation of adults with autism spectrum conditions. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(11), 1013-1027. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00277-1.

5) Lai, M.C., Kassee, C., Besney, R., Bonato, S., Hull, L., Mandy, W., Szatmari, P. & Ameis, S.H. (2019). Prevalence of co-occurring mental health diagnoses in the autism population: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, 6(1), 819-829. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30289-5

6) Tierney, S., Burns, J. & Kilbey, E. (2016). Looking behind the mask: Social coping strategies of girls on the autistic spectrum. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 23, 73-83. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2015.11.013

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