What is ASD?

Who has it – and who doesn’t?

Autism has been around for a long time, but no-one really started talking about it until around 1930 when some psychiatrists noticed some similar traits in a few people.  Over time they have tried to categorise these traits and wrote some descriptions so other people could observe and assess a person to decide who has it.  Their observations (updated over time)  are written in a book called DSM V and are called the diagnostic criteria.

The criteria are a list of behaviours, some of which can also be seen in many people in the general population, but a diagnosis requires that: 

  • The things on the list can be observed by others

  • They are seen from an early age

  • They affect the ability of the individual to participate in every-day activities

 There will be people (maybe even in your family and community) who have some of these traits who wouldn’t meet the criteria because they only have a few of the things on the list or because they can still function well.  Good news is that this journey will help you to better understand them as well. 

What does it mean?


If you have an autistic child or friend, you might notice some things are a little different to what you might have seen in other children or adults.  Either you or someone else has noticed this and there might have been a referral for a diagnosis. 

One of the first things you might have noticed is that your tamariki might not respond or talk at the same time as peers or siblings, and when they do start to talk – they might do it differently – perhaps they repeat words and phrases they have heard from people or media such as TV or movies. 

Other things you might observe are:

  • S/he might play in unusual ways (maybe they like repetition and order here too)

  • Perhaps s/he ignores other people or responds in a different way

  • S/he might react to sounds, smells, lights or touching specific things.  Sometimes s/he might avoid them (by blocking ears) and other times seek them (eg stroking a soft of silky fabric)

How does it happen?

It is complicated and not yet fully understood, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors mean that brain development is affected by changes in the way different parts connect with each other.   The areas of the brain that are affected involve social communication and thinking.  However, the exact process and differences vary in each person - which is why no two people with autism are the same.

One person who thinks differently (sometimes called neurodiverse) has given an example of how it might look if you used similar medical language to define people who think ‘normally’ (sometimes called neurotypical):

What is NT? Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterised by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority and obsession with conformity.

How common is it? Tragically, as many as 9,625 cases out of every 10,000 individuals may be neurotypical.

Are there any treatments for it? There is no known cure for neurotypical syndrome.



How many people have autism?

Studies done in individual countries have different criteria, so it is hard to compare, and there are different prevalence rates around the world.  Recent studies estimating the prevalence vary from 1 in 38 (South Korea), 1 in 59 (USA), 1 in 90 (UK), and 1 in 435 (China).

  • The current worldwide average is between 1% (1 in 100) and 2% (1 in 50).

  • Boys are diagnosed at a much higher rate (4:1), but current research suggests many girls are likely to be undiagnosed.

It’s easy to think it is increasing in prevalence, but it’s more likely that we are more educated and therefore recognise and respond when we see differences in children’s development.  

Characteristics of



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