Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Rachael Willis on April 11, 2017 in Autism

What Is Autism (ASD)?

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with other people. The month of April is Autism Awareness month and to support the cause we wanted to share a helpful guide to understanding ASD and ways to support this disorder in our community.

The word ‘spectrum’ describes the range of difficulties that people on the autism spectrum may experience and the degree to which they may be affected. Some people may be able to live relatively normal lives, while others may have an accompanying learning challenges and require continued specialist support.

The main areas of difficulty are in social communication, social interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests. Interestingly Autism affects almost four times as many boys than girls.

Whist it’s estimated that one in 100 people have autism (that’s almost 230,000 Australians), social stigma and misunderstanding still exists in the community. Unfortunately it is often driven by lack of understanding and often people with ASD that are affected by verbal and non-verbal communication challenges are victimised because of their unusual behaviours. For example, a person with ASD may say odd and inappropriate things, repeat verbal statements made by another person (called ‘echolalia’). The unusual communication style of those with ASD can sometimes lead to children and adults with ASD being the victims of bullying.


What signs might suggest someone has an ASD?

In addition to possible learning difficulties and challenges regarding social interaction, people on the autism spectrum may also have:

– Social awareness and interaction – Children and adults with ASD often have difficulty following social rules, which may make them appear unfriendly.

– May show unusual Sensory sensitivities like avoiding everyday sounds and textures, or hold unusual sensory interests such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving objects. Both children and adults with ASD may also be more sensitive to touch and the taste or texture of some foods. Examples of this include rejecting a family member trying to give them a cuddle or insisting that all labels are cut off their clothes because the touch of them on their skin is unbearable.

– Intellectual impairment or learning difficulties (Activities / Interests) Children with ASD rarely play games or engage in imaginative play (e.g., playing make believe)

– Children and adults with ASD may also experience sleep problems. Children in particular may have difficulty going to sleep, continue to be active through the night, wake frequently and sleep much less than expected for their age.

(Ref – APS Understanding Autism https://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/autism/)


This video developed by Autism Spectrum Australia provides a good overview of ASD in children and how the disorder can be managed in a learning environment. 

How is ASD treated?

No single treatment program has been found to be successful in treating all individuals with ASD. Health professionals plan treatment to match the person’s particular needs, their strengths and difficulties. In treating ASD in children it is important to begin the treatment early on in the disorder, plan a treatment program to meet the child’s needs, treat both behaviour and communication problems, and involve parents and other primary caregivers. Early intervention focuses on teaching social skills, developing motor and communication skills, reducing problem behaviours (e.g., emotional outbursts, head-banging, interrupting) and promoting positive behaviours (e.g., turn-taking in social situations).

Medication is sometimes used to improve attention span or reduce unwanted behaviours, such as hand-flapping. However it is important to explore other ways of reducing these behaviours because some medications have harmful side effects, especially if taken over a long period of time.


Seeking professional assistance –

If you feel that you, or someone you know, would benefit from professional assistance to address problems associated with ASD, you can contact our team of Clinical Psychologists. We can also help individuals manage other problems that may be associated with a diagnosis of ASD such as anxiety, depression, behaviour problems, relationships and workplace issues.

To get to know more about each of our psychologists, take a look at their Professional profiles or if you’d like to chat about which team member might be the best match for you give us a call on 0413 819 558.

Looking for more information?

Autism Spectrum Australia has developed a helpful resource which you can download – Click here to download the Quick Guide to Autism


NEED SUPPORT? National Autism associations

Australian Capital Territory  New South Wales 
Autism Asperger ACT
Phone: 02 6290 1984
Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT)
Phone: 02 8977 8300
Northern Territory  Queensland 
Autism NT
Phone: 08 8948 4424
Autism Queensland
Phone: 07 3273 0000
South Australia  Tasmania 
Autism SA
Phone: 1300 288 476
Autism Tasmania Inc.
Phone: 03 6278 9985
Victoria  Western Australia 
Autism Victoria
Phone: 1300 308 699
Autism Association of WA
Phone: 08 9489 8900


Helping Children with Autism initiative – Other Resources

In 2008 the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing announced a number of initiatives to support the assessment of and early intervention for children with ASD. More information on these initiatives, who is eligible and how they can access the various services, can be found at www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-autism-factpar.


About the Author

Rachael WillisView all posts by Rachael Willis


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