What is Autism?

What is Autism?

Autism, often diagnosed as “Autism Spectrum Disorder”, is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition, which impacts two main areas:

1) An autistic person may have difficulties with social communication and social interaction skills. This means that a person with autism might have difficulties reciprocating in conversations and social interactions, engaging in nonverbal behaviours (e.g., eye contact, gestures), and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.

2) People with autism may also demonstrate restrictive, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests, or activities. This might include insistence on sameness (e.g., rigid, black-and-white thinking, difficulties with change) or engaging in behaviours that may be perceived as unusual. Sometimes, a person with autism might also show intense focus for objects or interests and possess sensory sensitivities (e.g., hyper- or hypo-sensitive to sights, smells, touch, tastes, and sounds).

For a diagnosis, professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, APA 2013) or the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11, WHO, 2018) to evaluate the varying presentation of the pattern of traits or symptoms described above. However, the use of the word “disorder” as part of the diagnostic terminology is rejected by many autistic people, who emphasise that autism is a natural part of variation in the human variation. Read about why some people choose to pursue a diagnosis here.

Autism impacts everyone differently

This means that people with autism may communicate, think, sense, move and interact differently than people without autism. Autism impacts everyone differently meaning that some people with autism experience different levels of difficulties and in different areas of their everyday living (e.g., social skills, daily living skills, intellectual abilities, sensory sensitivities).

As such, research on the outcomes and supports for adults with autism also varies. Research in this area is somewhat new and limited. Outcome studies and reviews highlight that adults with autism are generally fairing poorly with respect to employment, community involvement, meaningful relationships with others, and physical and mental health1. For instance, in their review of the literature, researchers2found that 50-60% of adults with autism leave school without educational or vocational qualifications, 76% are unable to find gainful employment, and 90-95% do not establish romantic relationships or meaningful friendships. These patterns parallel research from the USA3, the UK4, Sweden5, and Canada6. These outcomes are low both when compared to normative expectations based on peers without autism’ educational, employment, and relationship attainment1, but also, critically, when compared to the outcomes of young neurodiverse adults7

Adults with autism can thrive

However, with appropriate awareness and acceptance, support, and where required, intervention – adults with autism can thrive in many aspects of their lives.

Autism can be described negatively in the literature, however, people with autism possess many strengths and assets that enable them to thrive and make outstanding contributions to society, including: 

  • Learning to read at a very early age (known as hyperlexia)
  • Memorising and learning information quickly
  • Thinking and learning in a visual way
  • Logical thinking ability
  • Self-motivated, independent learners
  • Being precise and detail orientated
  • Being honest and reliable
  • Some people may show a strong aptitude for a particular field of study or topic
  • Being dependable in regards to schedules and routines
  • Tendency to be unconventional, open-minded, and tolerant
  • Strong adherence to rules
  • A drive for perfection and order
  • Ability/preference for spending time alone
  • Detail-oriented
  • Propensity to think outside the box and generate novel solutions to problems
  • Unique humour
  • Advocate when made aware of injustice
  • Propensity to express caring in non-traditional ways
  • Desire to connect – are a good friend
  • And so many more…

Keep in mind, however, that people with autism are not all alike, and that they are likely to differ from one another in respect to their areas of strength and in their areas of challenge.

Check out our Infographic of Strengths below created by Dr Keeley White:


(1) Howlin, P. (2000). Outcome in adult life for more able individuals with autism or Asperger syndrome. Autism, 4(1), 63–83.

(1) Howlin, P. (2003). Outcome in high-functioning adults with autism with and without early language delays: implications for the differentiation between autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33(1), 3–13.

(1) Howlin, P., & Moss, P. (2012). Adults with autism spectrum disorders. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(5), 275 Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/openview/851d6db63c828ebcac5266d7d80cb5dd/1?pq-origsite=gscholar.

(1) Taylor, J. L., & Seltzer, M. M. (2011). Employment and post-secondary educational activities for young adults with autism spectrum disorders during the transition to adulthood. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(5), 566–574.

(2) Levy, A., & Perry, A. (2011). Outcomes in adolescents and adults with autism: A review of the literature. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5(4), 1271–1282.

(2) Farley, M. A., McMahon, W. M., Fombonne, E., Jenson, W. R., Miller, J., Gardner, M., … & Coon, H. (2009). Twenty-year outcome for individuals with autism and average or near-average cognitive abilities. Autism Research, 2(2), 109-118.

(3, 7) Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., & Anderson, K. A. (2015). National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood. Philadelphia: Life Course Outcomes Research Program, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University.

(4) Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2004). Adult outcome for children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(2), 212–229.

(5) Billstedt, E., Gillberg, I., & Gillberg, C. (2005). Autism after adolescence: population-based 13-to 22-year follow-up study of 120 individuals with autism diagnosed in childhood. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(3), 351–360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-005-3302-5.

(5) Billstedt, E., Gillberg, I. C., & Gillberg, C. (2011). Aspects of quality of life in adults diagnosed with autism in childhood: A population-based study. Autism, 15(1), 7–20. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361309346066.

(5) Billstedt, E., Gillberg, I., & Gillberg, C. (2007). Autism in adults: symptom patterns and early childhood predictors. Use of the DISCO in a community sample followed from childhood. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 48(11), 1102–1110.

(6) Eaves, L. C., & Ho, H. H. (2008). Young adult outcome of autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(4), 739–747.

(6) Nicholas, D. B., Attridge, M., Zwaigernbaum, L., & Clarke, M. (2015). Vocational support approaches in autism spectrum disorder: A synthesis review of the literature. Autism, 19(2), 235–245.

(7) Taylor, J. L., & Seltzer, M. M. (2011). Employment and post-secondary educational activities for young adults with autism spectrum disorders during the transition to adulthood. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(5), 566–574.