Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects communication, behaviour, and social interaction. It is characterized by a wide range of symptoms and severity levels, which is why we use the term "spectrum." Individuals with autism may have difficulties with social interactions, repetitive behaviours, sensory sensitivities, and communication challenges.

Understanding the potential vulnerabilities that some individuals with autism may face is crucial for developing effective prevention and early intervention strategies and provide targeted support to address their unique needs.

Step Together recently chatted with Dr Vicki Gibbs for some insights. Vicki is a Clinical Psychologist and Head of Research at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). Vicki has almost 20 years’ experience in the field of autism, initially specialising in diagnostic assessment before taking up a research role conducting studies spanning assessment, education, well-being, employment, and criminal justice.

Obviously autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. But can you tell us a little bit about what autism is, is there a cause, and who does it affect?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which means that it is a brain-based difference that is present from birth. Autism influences how a person experiences and perceives the world around them. At least 1 in 40 people are on the autism spectrum.  Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls at a ratio of about 3 or 4 to 1, however we don’t know if that is because there are actually more autistic boys or we are just better at recognising autism in boys. In terms of causes, we know there is a strong genetic link to autism. We know this from twin studies and family studies e.g. if one identical twin is Autistic the likelihood that the other twin is Autistic is as high as 70 or 80%. We also know that a sibling of a child with autism is about 9 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than a sibling of a non-Autistic child. We also know that genetics are not the only cause although the environmental factors are not well understood. We do know for certain that vaccines and parenting are not causes of autism.

What are some of the signs/indicators?

To receive a formal diagnosis there must be evidence of difficulties/differences in two categories or domains.

The first domain relates to Social communication and social interaction. Autistic people often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard to navigate the social world.  Autistic people may also have a preference for solitary play when younger. They may seek out time alone when overloaded by other people or the environment. They may appear to others to behave 'strangely' or in a way thought to be socially inappropriate. Autistic people often find it hard to form friendships. They might appear less interested in interacting with their peers and find group play difficult or less interesting than Non-Autistic children. 

They may also find it difficult to participate or follow conversations. Autistic people are often misunderstood by non-Autistic people and this can result in a lot of negative experiences including teasing, bullying and exclusion.

The second category relates to a group of behaviours including a preference for routine and predictability, intense interests in a particular topic area and differences in the way sensory information is processed and experienced.

There are also notable strengths that people need to be aware of, as well as difficulties?

Autistic people may have:

·       average to very high intelligence

·       good verbal skills, rich vocabulary

·       ability to think in visual images and identify patterns

·       propensity to think outside the box and generate novel solutions to  problems

·       ability to absorb and retain large amounts of information, especially topics of special interest

·       detail oriented

·       ability to focus for long periods on areas of interest

·       ability to perform repetitive tasks where accuracy, rules  and routine  are important

Character strengths include reliability and punctuality, honesty, loyalty, and a strong sense of fairness and justice.  

How would you get a formal diagnosis?

To get a formal diagnosis, children are typically referred to paediatrician and/or a multi-disciplinary team for assessment. 

A contentious issue – but  can you speak to the relationship between autism and radicalisation?

At this stage there is insufficient evidence to establish a link between autism and extremism. However, there has been a recent increase noted by counter terrorism teams across multiple countries in the number of  children and teens (12 – 18) being radicalised online, many of whom have developmental and/or mental health conditions. 

Can you speak to the risk factors as well as protective factors?

Some aspects of autism have been put forward as possible risk factors for radicalisation. For example, a tendency to become fixated on interests could be problematic if those interests tend towards topics related to violence or extremism. If an autistic young person accesses an extremist website, they may establish online links with terrorists who expose them to extremist ideals and try to exploit their social naivety and/or technical strengths. Equally, some aspects of autism may be protective. Character strengths such as honesty, strong sense of morality/fairness may be protective as is the fact that many autistic people are independent thinkers who tend not to follow fads or succumb to “group think”.

What can parents or carers do for someone with Autism? Or what would be the first step if someone had concern for someone? Where can they go for support?

Parents and carers can speak to their GP and ask for a referral to a developmental paediatrician. There are a number of supports available and information about supports nationwide can be obtained from Autism Connect webpage: https://www.amaze.org.au/autismconnect/ or from the autism organisations based in each state and territory. 

Last updated:

14 Jun 2024

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