What is autism spectrum disorder and how common is it?

Research shows about one in 100 children globally are diagnosed with autism

Sarah Young,Kate Ng
Sunday 17 July 2022 12:51 BST
What is autism spectrum disorder?

Awareness around autism spectrum disorder is growing around the world, and scientists are learning more about it every day.

According to a 2022 study published in Autism Research, about 100 in 10,000 (or one in 10)0 children around the world are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

This is an increase from a 212 global prevalnce report, which found that 62 in 10,000 children were autistic. Scientists say that the increase in autism prevalence “reflects... the impact of public health efforts to raise global awareness of autism spectrum disorder”.

Autism is not an illness nor a medical condition with treatments or a “cure” - but autism is a spectrum, which means everybody with autism is different and has different needs.

So what is autism spectrum disorder and how common is it? Here’s everything you need to know:

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others, the National Autistic Society (NAS) states.

A person with autism experiences their surroundings differently to others, which can impact their communication skills and their ability to relate to others.

As the name suggests, autism is a spectrum condition meaning that people can experience the condition in different ways.

How common is it?

There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK – that’s more than one in 100 people, according to the NAS.

People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can have autism and it can appear to impact men more than women.

But there are a number of theories as to why more men and boys than women and girls receive an autism diagnosis, including genetic differences but also that men are more regularly diagnosed while women and girls are better at masking or camouflaging their difficulties.

You can read more about gender and autism here.

What are the signs?

Two people will not experience ASD in the same way as it has a variety of effects. However, there are some uniting factors.

In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday life can be more difficult.

The NAS states that autistic people may feel as though others “don’t understand them” and often have difficulty “recognising or understanding others’ feelings and intentions”.

As a result, autistic people can appear to be insensitive, seek out time alone and behave in a way thought to be socially inappropriate, the NHS states.

Autistic people also tend to engage in repetitive behaviour and routines. For example, they “may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat exactly the same food for breakfast”.

Many autistic people also experience over or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain.

The NHS says autistic people can have any level of intelligence.

How can autistic people be supported?

Autism is a life-long condition and many people see it as an important part of their identity.

However, there are a number of strategies and behavioural programmes that help to enable learning and development which autistic people may find helpful.

If your child is autistic, it’s also good idea to find out as much as you can about autism.

The NHS recommends a number of interventions that can help your child’s development, including:

  • communication skills – such as using pictures, sign language or both to help communicate as speech and language skills can be significantly delayed
  • social interaction skills – play-based strategies, comic strips and some computer-based interventions can help
  • imaginative play skills – such as encouraging pretend play
  • learning skills – such as pre-learning skills to help concentration, reading, writing and maths

Detailed advice and support programmes are also available for parents of children recently diagnosed with autism.

For example, the EarlyBird programme provided by the NAS is a free three-month course for parents of an autistic child under the age of five.

You can also find local and national services for families on the NAS’s Autism Services Directory.

Autistic adults can join the NAS’s online community to connect with other autistic adults or call the Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104.

If you think you or a loved one might be autistic then you can contact your GP for more information.

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