Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects cognitive, sensory, and social processing, changing the way people see the world and interact with others.
Autism is currently estimated to be present in 1 in 54 people*. It is not a mental illness, but a neurological difference - one of many variations of neurodiversity.
Every autistic person is unique, with a wide range of skills, qualities, interests, and personality styles. As the saying goes, “if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.” The level of support required is also highly individual. This heterogeneity is due to the fact that autism is not a single condition but a cluster of underlying neurological differences that are present in varying combinations in each person. The behaviour and needs related to these differences share common themes but manifest in different ways for each individual.
Autism is considered an invisible disability since challenges and difficulties are often not immediately apparent. There are no visible physical markers. The cognitive differences associated with autism may also contribute to specific skills such as superior visual memory, attention to detail, and pattern recognition.
*Maenner, M. J., Shaw, K. A., Baio, J., Washington, A., Patrick, M., DiRienzo, M., . . . Dietz, P. M. (2020). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years – autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 100 sites, United States, 2016. MMWR Surveillance Summaries, 69(No. SS-4), 1-12. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6904a1
01. What causes Autism?
There is no one single known cause of autism that is shared by all individuals who are diagnosed. Instead, it is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and a variety of pre, peri and postnatal environmental factors. Epigenetic changes may also be involved.
Hundreds of genes have been identified as being linked to autism, and in most cases several different mutations work together to contribute to the individual traits each person experiences. There is an ongoing debate about the relative importance of specific environmental factors, with general agreement on only a few factors (e.g. parental age and maternal infection).
02. Can autism be cured?
Autism is not an illness and cannot be “cured”.
It is a lifelong condition, but depending on the individual there are approaches that may help the individual learn key skills and live the life they want to live. Over time, and with the right kind of support, strategies may be learned to overcome some of the challenges associated with autism. However, the ongoing use of these strategies requires a phenomenal amount of effort by the person, which is not always obvious to an observer.
03. Who can do an assessment?
Developmental Paediatricians, Clinical Psychologists, and Psychiatrists can do assessments. It is important that the clinician you choose is experienced with autism.
If you are an adult, it is advisable to seek out a clinician who specialises in adult diagnosis. This is crucial if you are a woman, as autism tends to present differently in females and most standard assessment tools are based on typically male traits. An inexperienced clinician may not recognise the often more subtle signs presented by autistic women, which could result in a misdiagnosis.
04. Is Asperger's a type of autism?
Prior to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5)*, Asperger’s Syndrome was considered separate from autism. It was diagnosed when the person met the criteria for autism but had no language delay in childhood.
Under the new DSM-5* criteria, people who were previously diagnosed with Asperger’s may now be diagnosed with autism with a severity level of 1 (level 1 means “requiring support”, whereas level 3 means “requiring very substantial support”).
This does not mean that the term “Asperger’s” needs to be dropped from our vocabulary. In fact, most people who were initially diagnosed with Asperger’s prefer to continue referring to themselves as “Aspies” or as having Asperger’s.
*American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (5th ed.). Arlington VA: Author.
05. What if I think someone has autism?
Your approach will vary depending on the person.
If it is for your own child, you may like to refer to our guide for getting an assessment. If it is for an adult or another person’s child, and you feel that they may be receptive to your thoughts, you may want to share that you think the challenges the person is having may be due to a neurological difference. If they appear open to further discussion, you may like to suggest autism. You could suggest that, if they would like to investigate this possibility further, they could consider visiting the Autism New Zealand website for information on autism and on how to go about obtaining a formal assessment. It is possible that the characteristics you observe may not be autism, and perhaps there is another explanation for them.
06. Should I tell people I have autism?
The decision to disclose autism is up to you and will depend on your specific situation.
It is generally helpful to disclose autism to family members and close friends in order to enable them to support you better.
There is no clear rule about disclosing to employers. In general, an employee cannot be compelled to disclose private information and may not choose to for fear of potential discrimination. However, there are exceptions depending on the nature of the role, and on how your autism affects you. You do have a legal responsibility to tell your employer about a pre-existing condition if not disclosing could put you or someone else at risk of harm. You also have to disclose if your autism would make it difficult for you to perform the tasks in the job description.
If you are unsure, we suggest that you contact an Autism New Zealand Outreach Coordinator, who will be able to provide you with guidance that is specific to your situation.
07. Is autism a disability?
Yes. Autism is considered an invisible disability.
The challenges an autistic person experiences are often not visible at first glance. Autism is one of the disabilities for which the New Zealand government provides funding. For more information on services and supports that may be available for you, contact your local Needs Assessment and Service Coordination provider (NASC).
08. How should I refer to a person diagnosed with autism?
Autism New Zealand recognises the importance of autistic-guided language. Language is constantly evolving, and many terms used in the past to describe autism have been largely rejected by the autistic community.
It is important to use and respect each person’s preferred terminology; it’s always best to ask the person how they would like to be referred to.
When speaking more generally about autism listening to the preferences of the autistic community, this means using identity-first language for autism (e.g. an autistic person, autistic people) instead of person-first language (e.g. a person with autism, people who have autism). ‘Person on the autism spectrum’ is often preferred over traditional person-first language and may be used in conjunction with identity-first language. Identity-first language is preferred because many people consider their autism an intrinsic part of their personhood.
Autism New Zealand does not use terms that categorise functioning (high-functioning or low-functioning) or severity (mild autism or severe autism). This is because functioning and severity labels do not represent the autistic persons experience of being autistic – they represent how society experience autistic people. Instead it is preferred that an individual’s specific support needs are described when needed. If simplification is required level of need can be used (person with less obvious support needs, person with lower support needs or person with complex support needs, person with higher support needs).
09. Does autism affect intelligence?
Intelligence (IQ scores) are not inherently affected by autism; however, other conditions that do affect IQ, such as intellectual disabilities or savant syndrome, can co-occur with autism.
This means that autistic people are statistically more likely than neurotypical people to sit on the extreme ends of the intelligence bell curve. It is important to realise that above or below average intellectual ability, if present, is generally due to a separate diagnosis, not the autism itself.
Films like “Rain Man” have promoted the stereotype of autistic people having savant abilities, and contemporary research in medical biography posits historical figures like Mozart, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton as having been on the autism spectrum. This has contributed to creating an expectation of autism being correlated with giftedness, special talents, and superior intelligence. In reality, while savantism is more common in autistics (approx. 10%) than in the neurotypical population (approx. 1%), it is far from the norm.
Instead, people with autism may have higher aptitude in specific types of tasks that require visual thinking or pattern recognition, which can make it easier to learn certain skills such as foreign languages, musical instruments, or maths. The typically autistic intense focus on a single topic, and relentless study as well as practice, may also contribute to what looks like a special talent.