Autism Explained

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts brain development.  The result is that most individuals experience communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. They may also have a markedly restricted range of activities and interests.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is typically accompanied by co-occurring medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal (gut) abnormalities and immune dysregulation. Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are common. Any of these conditions may severely impact an individual’s quality of life.

The term “spectrum” refers to a range or continuum of severity or of developmental impairment. Children and adults with ASDs may have particular characteristics in common but the condition covers a wide spectrum, with individual differences in the following:

  • Number and particular kinds of symptoms
  • Severity: Mild to severe
  • Age of onset
  • Levels of functioning
  • Challenges with social interactions.

Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have varying degrees and combinations of symptoms and therefore, treatment must be specific to the individual. It is also important to keep in mind that children, teens and adults with autism vary widely in their needs, skills and abilities. There is no standard “type” or “typical” person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

According to the National ASD Surveillance System 2018 report, Autism Prevalence among Children and Youth in Canada  an estimated 1 in 54 children and youth between 5 and 17 years of age have been diagnosed with ASD.  The report is based on 2015 health, education and social services data collected from seven participating provincial and territorial governments representing 40% of children and youth in Canada.

Attention has recently shifted away from a focus that was almost exclusively on early diagnosis and interventions in young children on the spectrum.  Autism is a lifelong condition.  Society needs to recognize that adults on the spectrum deserve appropriate medical care, social support, educational accommodations, employment opportunities and housing.  

The 2017 report Aging and Autism: A think tank round table, addressed three prominent issues that have intersected and will continue to impact families, communities, and nations:

  • the increased prevalence of autism
  • the processes of autism and aging
  • the demographic change of aging societies.