What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that includes conditions that were previously called: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder and pervasive developmental disorder. Some people who experience ASD prefer the term neurodiverse – it’s always best to check with the person which term they prefer.

ASD is a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way people interact with the world. It can cause challenges socially, as well as with:

  • communication
  • restricted interests
  • repetitive behaviours.


The word spectrum is used because ASD does not look the same for everyone and can present in a number of different ways. The ways in which people experiencing ASD learn, think and problem solve can differ greatly. Some people experience more severe symptoms, while others have milder symptoms. Those on the milder end of the spectrum may be diagnosed with high-functioning ASD leading them to be able to navigate school, work and relationships with less support. Your sex assigned at birth can also determine how your symptoms present.

The good news is that better understanding of ASD has led to ways that help people navigate school, work, relationships and life.

What are the symptoms of ASD?

ASD can lead to thinking, feeling, learning or behaving in ways that can affect a person’s ability to:

  • communicate and interact socially
  • cope with their environment  
  • think or process information.


Communicating and interacting socially

A person experiencing ASD might face challenges in social interactions and communication, such as expressing empathy, understanding others and they might have difficulties picking up on and understanding social norms or rules, such as waiting a turn to speak in a conversation.  

Some people experiencing ASD might only have interests in a small number of special topics. These are called restricted interests and can lead to a person having great depth of understanding and knowledge about those topics. This can make it difficult to pay attention to, or show interest in other topics that are raised – this can impact on work, studies and relationships.

A person experiencing ASD might also display repetitive behaviours that could include bodily movements – like hand flapping, body rocking, arranging and rearranging objects – or verbal sounds or words.


Situational and sensory stressors

A person experiencing ASD may have difficulty coping with sensations such as light, touch or noise. This is called sensory sensitivity. They might become upset or very uncomfortable when they experience certain sensations. It can lead to avoiding certain objects, experiences or places in order to feel better. This can affect how a person goes about their daily life. It can interrupt their participation in certain activities or interactions. It can also lead to a preference for routines and habits that if disrupted, can cause high levels of anxiety and distress.


Thinking and processing information

People who experience ASD are often literal thinkers, meaning they can be good with facts, figures and details. But they may struggle with things they haven’t experienced themselves, abstract things, such as characters in a books or movies.

Some people also experience difficulty recalling recent events, or following lengthy, complicated instructions. This might make actions that require multi-tasking, have a time pressure or newer tasks challenging. This can feel stressful or frustrating and impact on the person’s ability to participate socially as well as in school or in the workplace.

What causes ASD?

Around one in 100 people experience ASD. It’s thought that a mix of genetic and other environmental factors change the way the brain develops: vaccines do not cause ASD. Signs and symptoms are usually noticeable in the first two years of life but may not be recognised until later. People with high-functioning ASD can sometimes go undiagnosed into late teens or adulthood.

How can ASD affect other areas of life?

ASD can impact a person’s ability to meet expectations from schools, peer groups or workplaces. They might be left out of activities, or miss out on the benefits that education, work or social groups normally provide. Without support and understanding, this can lead to delays in development, discrimination and disadvantage.

People who experience ASD may also experience anxiety, in particular social anxiety. Some people also experience depression, or may have problems with language. Other conditions that are sometimes diagnosed with ASD are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Getting help  

It can help to speak to someone about your worries such as a family member, teacher, Elder, trusted adult or friend. Speaking to your general practitioner (GP), local headspace centre, or eheadspace can be a great first step in getting the right support and information – they can work with you and the important people in your life. 

People who experience ASD may require coordinated care with a range of services that reflect their changing needs throughout their lives. This includes ongoing assessment and treatment by a multidisciplinary team.

There are also behavioural and developmental therapies that can assist in managing symptoms of ASD. For example, if communicating with others or social interactions is challenging for you, you may benefit from Social Skills Training. It involves working with a professional to breakdown social cues, norms, and rules, providing opportunities to practise and figure out what to do in certain situations that are typically hard to navigate.

Your GP can also discuss your eligibility for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS is a national scheme that funds support for eligible people.

Look after yourself

Alongside professional help, there are things you can do to support your mental health and wellbeing:

  • connect with people
  • stay active, spend time doing nice things
  • eat well
  • cut back on alcohol and other drugs
  • get into life
  • get enough sleep
  • learn new coping skills.


For more information visit eheadspace for online and phone support or find your nearest headspace centre

Other useful websites: 





The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website. 

Last reviewed 12 November 2019

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