Characteristics of autism
Autism can be tricky to define. Autism is a developmental condition that affects how a child learns and interacts with the world around them. Because autism has many different characteristics, no two people on the spectrum are alike. However, those on the autism spectrum may need support in two main areas:
Social communication issues
- Understanding non-verbal communication, such as body language
- Understanding when and how to appropriately respond in social interactions
- Developing, understanding and maintaining relationships with others
- Expressing and comprehending information
Repetitive patterns of behaviour
- Repetitive use of movement, speech or objects
- Affected by changes to expected routines and surroundings
- Intense focus on limited, specialised areas of interest
- Increased sensitivity or lack of sensitivity to particular sensory signals, such as sound, touch, taste, etc.
How many people have autism?
It’s estimated that autism is diagnosed in around 1 in every 70 Australians, with boys being 4 times more likely to have autism than girls. Autism can be diagnosed in people in all areas from all cultural and economic backgrounds. The characteristics of autism appear in early childhood, but it may be difficult to recognise them in infants and very young children.
New to diagnosis
What to expect with an autism diagnosis
Autism affects 1 in 70 Australians, with boys being 4 times as likely to receive an autism diagnosis than girls. Because autism is a spectrum, the characteristics of autism can vary significantly between individuals. The way autism presents in one child may be different to how it presents in another.
This can make it confusing to understand and difficult to know what to do next. Which is why we’ve developed a range of practical tools and information sheets to help you understand what autism may mean for your child and how you can help strengthen their learning, socialising and coping skills.
Reactions to autism spectrum diagnosis
It’s natural for parents and family members to react to a diagnosis in different ways. Some may be shocked, sad or even angry. Others may feel guilt or worry. There may be feelings of relief that there is finally an answer for their child’s differences or difficulties, or there may be a period of denial.
There is no right or wrong way to feel or react.
Different family members such as siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended family may react in very different ways. Helping them learn about autism can remove a lot of the unknowns that lead to worry. Having coping strategies in place for your child and your family makes it easier for everyone to adjust.
What to do next?
Observe and learn: It will be important to understand your child’s needs. For example: how they respond to their environment and sensory input; their learning style; their behaviours and interests; how they interact with others; and their communication style. Our planning matrix and reinforcement inventories can help with these needs and are free for you to download and use.
Form partnerships: Talking with your child’s healthcare providers, therapists and teachers is also important. Together you can build a more complete picture of how your child engages in different environments and work out the best ways to support their development.
Financial assistance: There are several agencies providing financial assistance to help cover the cost of any specialist services your child may need; for example, transport, respite services, carer’s allowance etc. To see which programs you may be eligible for, please visit the sites below for more information.
Medicare – Helping Children with Autism program
Centrelink – financial help for carers and those who need care
To help you better understand a new autism diagnosis, we invite you explore all the resources available on this site. You can also contact us with any questions you may have.
How is autism diagnosed?
Autism tests and diagnosis
You may have noticed your child responds or behaves differently to others their age. Perhaps their language skills aren’t developing as quickly. They seem to react unusually to touch or sound. Or they may become very easily upset at changes to routine.
These things may be phases experienced as a normal part of development, but they may also be signs of autism. If you’re concerned about differences in your child’s behaviours or development, you should talk to your paediatrician or family doctor.
At this time, there aren’t any medical tests, such as blood tests or scans that detect autism. A diagnosis is made by assessing certain aspects of behaviour and development. Your child’s doctor, or other allied healthcare professionals (such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists, or psychologists) will ask about their history and behaviour, which will be assessed against descriptors set out in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) to determine if they are on the autism spectrum. They will evaluate your child’s:
- language and communication skills
- social skills and how they respond to others
- response to changes in their environment or routine
- under or over sensitivity to sensory input (touch, sound, sight, smell, etc.)
- repetitive or rigid behaviour patterns
Autism may be diagnosed when issues in these areas present at a young age and impact their everyday functioning.
Understanding terminology and titles
There is often a lot of terminology and jargon in medical settings which can seem overwhelming or confusing. Here are some common terms and titles you might find helpful when seeking an autism diagnosis.
Diagnosis: confirming the cause of the problem by looking at the symptoms.
Diagnosing/diagnostic team: the people who will be assessing your child’s symptoms to make a diagnosis.
Diagnostician: the person who will be responsible for the assessment and diagnosis.
Paediatrician: a doctor who specialises in the care of babies, children and teenagers.
Psychologist: a therapist who specialises in issues with behaviour, emotions, thinking or learning new skills.
Psychiatrist: a doctor who specialises in emotional and mental disorders, who may prescribe certain medication for treatment.
Speech pathologist/therapist: a healthcare professional who helps patients develop speech and communication skills.
Occupational therapist: a healthcare professional who helps patients with movement, balance, self-care, sensory responses and other living skills.
Take a look at this video we filmed of young people on the autism spectrum talking about their lived experience of autism and their thoughts on schooling and education. You will also hear from their families and teachers sharing ideas on strategies that best support these students in class.
Don't forget to access our full resource section for downloadable resources and strategies for families and schools:
Autism friendly schools
Impact on learning
Parents and teachers are aware that students with autism are not always able to access the curriculum as easily as their peers. For many students, difficulties in understanding class lessons, participating appropriately and achieving educational outcomes is not directly related to cognitive difficulties. It's important that teachers understand the characteristics of autism and their impact on learning and engagement as this impacts on their positive educational outcomes. One of the key concepts to understand in relation to how autism impacts on learning is executive functioning.
Broadly speaking, executive functions are a set of cognitive skills that are used for planning and carrying out tasks and for organising and regulating behaviour over time. Most researchers in this area agree that important elements include:
- working memory
- mental flexibility
- planning and organisation
- self monitoring
These skills, amongst others, allow us to make plans, keep track of time, cope with distractions, evaluate ideas, ask for help when needed and take turns in games and conversations. In addition, our executive functions help us to focus on multiple streams of information, check for errors, make decisions and revise plans when given new information. Successful use of these skills allow students to participate successfully at school and manage their own behaviour and are crucial in developing and maintaining social interactions.
Executive functioning difficulties might not be obvious in early childhood or during the early years of school, but may become more problematic in upper primary and high school when teachers are less likely to provide scaffolds and structure for students throughout the day.
Creating positive partnerships
Autism is experienced by every child differently, which is why it’s important to understand the specific needs of students in your school to implement effective learning strategies.
Schools and families interact with children on the spectrum in different ways. They can learn much from each other and through sharing their respective knowledge, create positive and meaningful learning environments for students with autism.
To develop and maintain these collaborative partnerships and create autism friendly schools, it’s important that the whole school:
- understands the benefits and importance of collaborating with families
- embraces a willingness for teachers, school staff and families to work together
- provides the skills and resources to foster collaborative partnership
Our Planning Matrix is a tool you can use to help create a shared dialogue between home and school around the learning characteristics and needs of a student. Head to our Resource section to learn more.
Visual supports, sensory, behaviour and more
Online Learning Hub modules
We have created self-paced, interactive modules for you to complete in our Online Learning Hub that will help you understand much more about autism. We have modules that include:
- An Introduction to Autism
- An Introduction to Visual Supports
- An Introduction to the Positive Behaviour Support template
- Understanding Sensory Processing
- Teachers and Teachers' Assistants: Dynamic Teams
- and many more
All of our modules are free and cover a range of subjects to help equip you with the knowledge and tools you need to best understand autism. Some of our modules are accredited and can provide teachers with hours towards their teacher accreditation in particular states.