Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. It includes Asperger syndrome and childhood autism.

Some people also use the term autism spectrum condition or ‘neurodiverse’ (as opposed to people without autism being ‘neurotypical’).

The main features of ASD typically start to develop in childhood, although the impact of these may not be apparent until there is a significant change in the person’s life, such as a change of school.

In the UK, it's estimated that about one in every 100 people has ASD.

There is no 'cure' for ASD, but a wide range of treatments – including education and behaviour support – can help people with the condition.

Read more about treating autism spectrum disorder.

Signs and symptoms

ASD can cause a wide range of symptoms, which are often grouped into two main categories:

  • Problems with social interaction and communication – including problems understanding and being aware of other people's emotions and feelings; it can also include delayed language development and an inability to start conversations or take part in them properly.
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of thought, interests and physical behaviours – including making repetitive physical movements, such as hand tapping or twisting, and becoming upset if these set routines are disrupted.

Children, young people and adults with ASD are often also affected by other mental health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety or depression.

About half of those with ASD also have varying levels of learning difficulties. However, with appropriate support many people can be helped to become independent.

Children with more severe symptoms and learning difficulties are likely to need more additional care and assistance to live independently as adults, although there is no reason why they and their families cannot enjoy a good quality of life.

Read more about the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.

Getting a diagnosis

Autism features can often be recognised in children before the age of two or three years. However for many, the signs will often only become more noticeable as they get older.

See your GP or health visitor if you notice any of the symptoms of ASD, or if you’re concerned about your child’s development. You can discuss your concerns together in depth before deciding whether your child should be referred for specialist assessment. It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns with your child’s nursery or school.

Adults can also be diagnosed with ASD. See your GP if you are concerned. They may use a screening tool to check if you have signs of ASD and they can refer you to appropriate services in your area.

Read more about diagnosing autism spectrum disorder.

What causes ASD?

The exact cause of ASD is unknown, but it is thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved. In some cases, an underlying condition may contribute to ASD.

In the past, some people believed that the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine caused ASD, but this has been investigated extensively in a number of major studies around the world, involving millions of children, and researchers have found no evidence of a link between MMR and ASD.

Read more about the causes of autism spectrum disorder.

Autism in adults

Some people with ASD had features of the condition as a child, but enter adulthood without ever being diagnosed. However, getting a diagnosis as an adult can often help people with ASD and their families understand the condition and work out what kind of support they need.

A number of autism-specific services are available to help adults with ASD find advice and support, get involved in leisure activities and find somewhere they are comfortable.

Some adults with ASD may have difficulty finding a job because of the social demands and changes in routine that working involves. However, they can get support to help them find a job that matches their abilities and skills.

Read more about adults with autism spectrum disorder.

Autism spectrum disorder - Graeme's story

Graeme describes his experience of having Asperger syndrome, one of the autism spectrum disorders.

Media last reviewed: 31/03/2014

Next review due: 31/03/2016

Caring for someone with ASD

Being a carer is not an easy role. When you are busy responding to the needs of others, it can affect your emotional and physical energy and make it easy to forget your own health and mental wellbeing.

If you're caring for someone else, it is important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible. It is in your best interests and those of the person you care for.

Our Care and support section has a lot of useful information on health, support and the benefits you are entitled to. You can also call the Carers Direct helpline on 0300 123 1053.

Page last reviewed: 18/12/2013

Next review due: 18/12/2015