About autism 
  Ways of helping 
  Seminar Room 
Close Menu 1.0 Introduction
    1.1 What is Autism?
    1.2 Fact and Fiction
    1.3 Prevalence of autism
Open Menu 2.0 History
Open Menu 3.0 The Triad of Impairments
Open Menu 4.0 Possible causes
Open Menu 5.0 Diagnosis
Open Menu 6.0 Rainman - Fact or Fiction?
Open Menu 7.0 Related Conditions

1.0 Introduction

1.1 What is Autism?

Throughout this presentation we will use the term autism - although it is well known that autism occurs in differing degrees of severity and in a variety of forms. The term's Spectrum and/or Continuum of disorders are commonly used to group people together that have a shared difficulty in making sense of the world.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. Children and adults with autism are unable to relate to others in a socially meaningful way.

Their ability to develop friendships is impaired, as is their capacity to understand other people's feelings. People with autism can often have accompanying learning disabilities. There is also a condition called Asperger's syndrome, which many experts - but by no means all - believe falls at the higher-functioning end of the autistic spectrum.

All people with autism have impairments in social interaction, social communication and imagination. This is referred to as the triad of impairments:

  • Social interaction (difficulty with social relationships, for example appearing aloof and indifferent to other people);
  • Social communication (difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, for example not really under-standing the meaning of gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice); and
  • Flexibility in thinking and behaving (difficulty in the development of play and imagination, for example having a limited range of imaginative activities, possibly copied and pursued rigidly and repetitively).
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1.2 Fact and Fiction

Whilst autism, as a term, was only defined 50 years ago, it has probably been a part of the human condition throughout history.

However, newly defined disorders inevitably lead to confusion, so here are a few pointers to what autism is and what it is not:

Autism is:

  • A pervasive developmental disorder involving a biological or organic defect in the functioning of the brain;
  • Occurs on average in four times as many males as females; 17 males to 1 female for high functioning/Asperger syndrome; 1 male to 1 female for profound learning disabilities.
  • A spectrum disorder � comprising individuals with profound learning difficulties through to people with average or above average IQ;
  • Associated with known organic causes e.g. maternal rubella, tuberous sclerosis;
  • Associated with epilepsy or seizure disorders in one third of individuals at adolescence;
  • In many cases genetically linked (often a family member has autism)
  • Associated with unusual responses to sensory stimuli;
  • A life-long disability with a need for correspondingly life-long support in most cases.

Autism is not:

  • The result of emotional deprivation or emotional stress;
  • A willful desire to avoid social contact;
  • Due in any way to parental rejection or cold parenting;
  • In any way class related;
  • A mental illness;
  • Misunderstood genius (although in a few circumstances some individuals have special abilities in narrow areas);
  • Curable (although improvements can be made in all cases).
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1.3 Prevalence of autism

The inevitable question all people ask is 'how common is autism'? However, comprehensive, statistically significant, surveys are not all that common.

The most cited statistic is that autism occurs in 5 out of 10,000 live births. However, this figure only focuses on the 'classic' type of autism known as Kanner Syndrome (see history section). Given that it is widely accepted that autism is a spectrum disorder researchers have shown that prevalence rates may be as high as 91 in 10,000. However, the Welsh Assembly Autism Planning Group preparing the national strategy for autism in Wales (of which Autism Cymru are members) takes the view that autism is likely to effect 1 in 330 people living in the UK, i.e. around 30 per 10,000.

Interestingly, estimates on the prevalence of autism vary considerably depending on the country, ranging from 2 out of 10,000 in Germany to as high as 16 out of 10,000 in Japan. This variation is almost certainly due to differing diagnostic criteria although genetic factors, and/or environmental influences may have an influence as yet unknown.

1.3.1 Estimated prevalence rates in the UK

People with Learning Disabilities (IQ under 70):
(Approximate Rates per 10,000)
Kanner Syndrome: 5
Other spectrum disorders: 15
People with average or high ability
(IQ 70 or above):
Asperger Syndrome: 36
Other spectrum disorders: 35
Possible total prevalence rate
of all autistic spectrum disorders: 

The best estimates of the total prevalence
of autistic spectrum disorders are those based on studies carried out in Camberwell (UK) and Gothenburg (Sweden), because these focused on the whole spectrum and not just specific sub-groups.

People with Learning Disabilities (IQ under 70)
(Note 1: Almost all of these people will need care and supervision all their lives)

 Other Spectrum Disorders
 5,200  21,000
 17,700  71,100
 All Ages
 22,900  92,100

People with Average or High Ability (IQ 70 or above)
(Note 2: Many, perhaps most, of these people will become semi or fully independent as adults but need understanding and help as children)

 Other Spectrum Disorders
 47,400  46,000
 160,100  150,000
 All Ages
 207,500  196,000

Thus in the UK where the population is around 59 million, people with autistic spectrum disorders may make up just less than 1% of the population.

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