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Understanding autism

A child playing with stringWhat is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects a person’s capacity to communicate, form relationships and interact socially. It has an impact on a person’s flexibility of thought and behaviour.

Why is it important to understand autism?

The way we understand autism has evolved considerably over the last decades. Little is known about the causes of autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD.) It is well established that this disorder has a genetic basis because the genetic relatives of an affected individual are more likely to be affected than people in the general population.

Whatever the causes of autism are, one defining characteristic is its early appearance. The diagnosis is usually made during the second year of life or a bit later, but autistic children show atypical patterns of relating in infancy. These early symptoms cannot however be differentiated clearly enough from normal development to allow a diagnosis in the first year of life. In some children, the development of social skills seems to stop progressing or decline. Studies have found that social communication eventually improves over time in most autistic children even though keeping up with the growing complexity of their social world remains a challenge. Overall, autistic children vary enormously in their social communication outcomes, some reaching age appropriate language and others progressing little.

How do I work with people with autism?

  1. Good communication is vital. This includes recognising behaviour triggers, using visual prompts and speaking in short, clear sentences. Use visual aids and non-verbal communication where possible.
  2. Structure can help people with autism make sense of their day. They need to know what they are doing and when. Establish routines and predictable environments. Inform people what is going to happen before it occurs.
  3. It is important to emphasise positives when working with people with autism. Use a person’s strengths in learning and encourage their independence. Encourage the generalisation of skills.
  4. Effective support depends on empathy and understanding the world from the perspective of the person with autism.
  5. People with autism usually respond best to a calm environment. Make sure you are prepared and know what’s going to happen next.

UNISON and the Open University organise one day CPD sessions on autism across the country. Contact your regional education team for more information. 

Learn more about understanding autism

Test your knowledge with the autism quiz

Explore what autism is and how people live with autism in the OpenLearn unit The world of autism

Read an overview of what autism is in the OpenLearn unit What is autism?

Discover the skills and talents that people with autism have in the OpenLearn unit Interests, skills and talents

Further information about understanding autism

Living Autism provides support for people with autism, and their families. You’ll find information about services, help and advice. See Living Autism.

The National Autistic Society offers information and advice and information on good practice.

Watch videos on YouTube about autism and how it affects people and families.