What is autism spectrum disorder? What are the most common symptoms of ASD?

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Around one in 100 children in the UK have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, however as our understanding of the condition and its symptoms develops, more adults are coming forward for diagnosis later in life. While there is greater awareness of autism spectrum disorder, there are still many myths and misconceptions about the condition.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a developmental condition affecting the way people communicate and interact with other people and the world around them.

The NHS says: “Being autistic does not mean you have an illness or disease.

“It means your brain works in a different way from other people.”

The reason the condition is titled Autism Spectrum is because there is a spectrum of autism symptoms, some people’s autism means they need support with daily tasks, whereas others don’t need any.

As a spectrum condition, autism can affect people very differently, and not everyone’s symptoms will be the same.

However, some of the most common symptoms of autism may include:

  • Find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
  • Find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
  • Find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
  • Get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
  • Take longer to understand information
  • Do or think the same things over and over

Autism is a condition you are born with, even if you don’t get diagnosed until later in life, autism is not a condition you develop over time.

It’s not clear what causes autism, or even if the condition has a cause.

Some false myths claimed autism could be caused by “bad” parenting, vaccines or diet, but none of these are true.

Autism symptoms explained

Social communication

Autistic people can struggle to interpret verbal and non-verbal communication; some autistic people struggle with speech, whereas others have perfect speech skills but can struggle with reading tone of voice, such as detecting sarcasm.

Some autistic people can find expressing their feelings and understanding other people’s feelings or intentions difficult.

Because of this, some autistic people can find social interactions take a lot of energy, and therefore will take time to recharge on their own.

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Repetitive behaviour

Having a familiar routine can be a great comfort to those with autism, as it helps to keep the day structured and avoid any unexpected events that could cause anxiety.

Sensory overload

Autistic people can be more sensitive to touch, sounds, smells, sights and tastes.

This can lead to sensory overload, which is when the stimulation of the senses becomes overwhelming.

For example, eating food in a restaurant with loud chatter and music could cause someone a lot of distress.

While others might be able to block out the noises, for some people with autism it can be impossible to ignore their surroundings.

Fixation on interests or hobbies

Many people with autism can become engrossed in their passions from a young age, and take immense pleasure in developing expertise in their chosen area.


Whether it’s tied to unpredictable changes to routine, social situations or other aspects of daily life, anxiety can be a big issue for autistic adults in particular.

According to the National Autistic Society, more than a third of people with autism have serious mental health issues.

Meltdowns and shutdowns

If they become overwhelmed, an autistic person can experience a meltdown or shutdown.

A meltdown is when someone loses control of their behaviour, much like a “temper tantrum”, as a result of triggers in a person’s environment.

A shutdown is when someone is equally overwhelmed, but rather than reacting outwardly, shuts down by suddenly closing off, becoming very quiet and possibly taking themselves away.

How to get an autism diagnosis

If you think you or your child might have autism, you should speak to your GP about being referred for an assessment.

It can be helpful to create a list of symptoms you’ve noticed which make you think you could be autistic.

Asking others who know you, or your child, well can help to form a fuller picture of symptoms that could help a professional make a diagnosis.

Autism is diagnosed by a professional autism assessment in which specialists will speak to you or your child, watch interactions and create a report.

A diagnosis can help in accessing extra help and resources to manage your autism, no matter how old you are.

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