What is Autism?
What is Autism? This is a complex question with many definitions, opinions and
For many parents who hear that their child is autistic for the first time, searching the web
presents a large quantity of information which can be overpowering and difficult reading.
The Oxford Dictionary defines Autism as “a mental condition, present from early
childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships
with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.”
Autism is something we will all probably encounter at one time in our life or another. If
you or a member of your family is not personally affected by the condition, it is likely you
will know or meet someone who is – and yet many people do not have any great
understanding of the condition.
The Autism Spectrum is a very wide one, with people affected in a variety of ways, to a
great number of varying degrees and no two people on the spectrum are affected in
entirely the same way.
The areas of difference for those on the spectrum can largely be summed up under 4
1. Social Communication
2. Social Imagination
3. Social Interaction
4. Sensory Processing
For more information on how these differences, please visit our Characteristics” page.
Summing up Autism for a person who has no prior knowledge of the condition can be
challenging – how do you explain an area so large and complex on simple and easy to
We like to use the analogy of outer space:
Imagine if you were put in a rocket tomorrow and flew into outer space, landing sometime later
in a planet, unknown to you, inhabited by an alien population.
You wouldn’t know the local rules, laws or customs, you wouldn’t know how to engage or
find common ground with the alien population. You would struggle to cope in day-to-day
circumstances in alien schools, workplaces and the alien social scene.
In order to cope, you try to observe and rationalise how the aliens behave.
You look at situations, which cannot necessarily be easily defined, and yet you try and
define them as “black” or “white” in an effort to comprehend what is going on around you
and how to negotiate your way around it.
You construct a routine to try and stop anything which moves you outside this safe zone
taking place, you struggle to keep your cool around the local smells, textures and noises
and, feeling so different, alone and afraid, you feel anxious and may even withdraw or
opt out of socialising.
Instead you might become used to your own company. You might develop fascinations
or intense interests with specific subjects or find you are constantly amused by your own
thoughts. You might feel hyperactive and struggle with concentration.
This isn’t a scientific definition of course, but it gives a sense of what it is like to be
autistic, to find the “rules of engagement” difficult to understand, or to know how to go
about socialising and coping with the world around you.
AsIAm defines Autism as a complex, invisible condition which a person is born
with. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which means that the way a
person communicates, interacts and understands other people and the world, is
different to those who do not have the condition. It can be described as a
‘spectrum’ which means it impacts different people, in different ways, to differing
degrees, at different times and in different situations.
AsIAm’s message is that Autism is a difference. Someone with a diagnosis of Autism will
have a different understanding of the world, a different way of seeing the world and
experience things differently to someone who is not on the spectrum. This can present
an individual with challenges in areas that come naturally to others, but it can also
present strengths and abilities due to that ability to think differently.