What is Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects the way people communicate and interact with the world. Characteristics generally appear in early childhood and will be present, in some form, for life.

Understanding autism

Around 1 in 100 Australians is autistic and 85% of the community has a personal connection with an autistic person.

Autism affects the way individuals interact with others and how they experience the world around them. Every autistic person is different, which means that each person has unique strengths and challenges.

“If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.”
Prof Stephen Shore

Autistic people may have:

  • challenges with communicating and interacting with others
  • repetitive and different behaviours, moving their bodies in different ways
  • strong interest in one topic or subject
  • unusual reactions to what they see, hear, smell, touch or taste
  • preferences for routines and dislike change.

There is no known cause of autism.

Much research is being done to try to find out more. Right now, evidence suggests that autism results from changes to the development and growth of the brain. These changes may be caused by a combination of factors, including genetics.

Autism is part of who a person is. It isn’t caused by parenting or social circumstances. Autism is also not caused by vaccination or other medical treatment. 

Autism may be present with other conditions. This can affect people in different ways. Some other conditions autistic people commonly experience are:

  • speech and language challenges
  • intellectual disability
  • sleep problems
  • attention problems
  • hyperactivity
  • epilepsy
  • anxiety and depression
  • challenges with fine and gross motor skills.

There are other conditions that are associated with autism, including Fragile X Syndrome, Tuberous Sclerosis and other genetic disorders.

Amaze defines an Autistic person with ‘complex support needs’ as someone who has a DSM-5 Level 3 Autism diagnosis or equivalent. Or, if the person has not received a diagnosis, requires support equal to that of someone with a Level 3 diagnosis. I.e., very substantial, and enduring support needs in the areas of: 

  • communication 
  • social interaction 
  • restricted, repetitive behaviours 
  • sensory processing differences.

Autistic people with complex support needs often have co-occurring disabilities and/or health conditions. These may further contribute to the complexity of their support needs and can include:  

  • persistent and/or chronic health conditions 
  • mental health conditions 
  • intellectual disability 
  • specific learning disability 
  • physical disability 
  • epilepsy 
  • multiple disabilities, sometimes in combination with health conditions.  

The DSM criteria is structured in terms of deficits. However, Autistic people with complex support needs, like all Autistic people, have many unique strengths and interests and make a valuable contribution to Australian society. Their abilities should not be underestimated, and they have the right to full community participation. 

Autism is a neurodevelopmental (meaning related to the brain) disability and doesn’t have any physical characteristics. 

This can lead to others judging autistic individuals and their families, because they may not understand why the autistic individual is behaving differently. For example, parents of autistic children sometimes report that others think that their children are badly behaved and that they lack parenting skills.

Another example is autistic adults who may struggle with social situations and ‘small talk’. Social interactions are subtle and constantly changing, and autistic people may have challenges keeping up with verbal and non-verbal messages that are being communicated – their behaviour may be misunderstood and believed to be rude.

Feeling judged can be very stressful for autistic people and their families. Treating them with respect, and being kind when someone is struggling can really make a difference.

The language we use is powerful, because it helps change attitudes towards autism.

Amaze respects the right of all individuals witha lived experience of autism to choose the language that most powerfully represents the way they identify.

Research from the United Kingdom examined the preferences of autistic people, their families, friends and professionals around the language used to describe autism. The findings confirmed that there is no single term that everyone prefers — but they did suggest a shift towards identity-driven language, and an understanding that autism is seen as integral to the person.

This shift in preference is consistent with the feedback Amaze has received from the Australian autistic community. To reflect this preference, Amaze uses the term autistic person. Read more about this decision in Amaze’s strategic plan.

The term autism includes autism/autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

When diagnosing autism, health professionals use the term Autism Spectrum Disorder to describe the varied presentation of autistic individuals. These specific terms are also often required for diagnostic and funding purposes.

You might also hear terms like high functioning, low functioning, severe and mild in an attempt to describe the extent of the challenges experienced by autistic people. However, every autistic individual has different strengths and challenges, and these terms ignore the difficulties some autistic people may experience and the capabilities of others. Amaze uses the terms high support needs and low support needs instead of high or low functioning.

Amaze recognises that our community includes people with diverse viewpoints and identities. We support all autistic people, regardless of their specific diagnosis or how they identify.

For more information

For more information about autism, contact Amaze’s Autism Connect advisors on 1300 308 699, email [email protected] or use the webchat on this site. This service is available from 8am to 7pm, Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays).

Explore the Understand Autism section of this website to find out more about autism. You can also find information sheets, downloadable booklets and other helpful material in the Resources section of this website.

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