Adoptive Families Association of BC
AFABC Special Needs Database

Autism is a complex developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life, though it is sometimes diagnosed much later (it is not a mental illness). It is a life-long disability that tends to be three to four times more common in boys than girls. It affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

Autism is a spectrum that encompasses a wide continuum of behaviour. Core features include impaired social interactions, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate, understand language, play, and relate to others. Some children with autism appear normal before age one or two and then suddenly "regress" and lose language or social skills they had previously gained. This is the regressive type of autism.

There is no known single cause for autism, but it is generally accepted that it is accused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in autistic versus non-autistic children. Researches are investigating a number of theories, including the link between heredity, genetics, and medical problems. In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting a genetic basis to the disorder.

While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that autistic children may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single "trigger" that causes autism to develop.

Individuals diagnosed with autism tend to be diverse. However, all autistic individuals share common behavioural characteristics. Generally, they display the following:

  • Impaired ability to engage in social interaction
  • Impaired communication skills
  • Specific behavioural patterns (preoccupation, resistance to change, adherence to non-functional routines and stereotyped and repetitive behaviours)

People with autism may perform repeated body movements, show unusual attachments to objects or have unusual distress when routines are changed. Individuals may also experience sensitivities in the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell or taste. Some combination of the following areas may be affected in varying degrees:


  • Is unable to start or sustain a conversation
  • Develops language slowly or not at all
  • Repeats words
  • Reverses pronouns
  • Uses nonsense rhyming
  • Communicates with gestures instead of words
  • Has a short attention span

Social interaction

  • Shows a lack of empathy (can't understand that other people feel differently or know different things)
  • Has difficulty making friends
  • Is withdrawn
  • Prefers to spend time alone rather than with others
  • Is less responsive to social cues such as eye contact or smiles

Sensory impairment

  • Has heightened or decreased senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste
  • Mouths objects
  • Rubs surfaces
  • Has diminished response to pain
  • May withdraw from physical contact because he or she is overstimulated or overwhelmed


  • Shows a decreased level of pretend or imaginative play
  • Shows a decreased level of imitation of the actions of others
  • Prefers solitary or ritualistic play


  • Uses repetitive body movements
  • Shows a strong need for sameness
  • "Acts out" with intense tantrums
  • Has a very narrow interests
  • Demonstrates perseveration (an obsessive interest in a single item, ides, activity, or person)
  • Shows aggression to others or self
  • Displays an apparent lack of common sense
  • Is overactive or is very passive

There is no known cure for autism. Although claims regarding "cures" have been made, they have not been substantiated. Research indicates that the most successful method for treating and educating autistic individuals involves structured and intensive behavioural interventions. Sometimes, medication is also necessary for hyperactivity, inattention, impulsivity, irritability, preoccupations, and anxiety.

Early diagnosis and appropriate educational programs are very important to children with autism. Educational programs focus on improving communication, social, academic, behavioural, and daily living skills.

Behaviour and communication problems that interfere with learning sometimes require the assistance of a knowledgeable professional in the autism field who develops and helps to implement a plan which can be carried out at home and school. The classroom environment should be structured so that the program is consistent and predictable. Students with autism learn better and are less confused when information is presented visually as well as verbally. Interaction with non-disabled peers is also important, for these students provide models of appropriate language, social, and behavioural skills.

To overcome frequent problems in generalizing skills learned at school, it is very important to develop programs with parents, so that learning activities, experiences, and approaches can be carried over into the home and community.

Autism may be accompanied by other handicapping conditions, such as seizures or intellectual delays.

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.