What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to others.

The degree of impairment ranges from mild to severe. ASD is an umbrella term which includes:

  • Autism

  • Asperger's syndrome

  • Pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).

People with Asperger's syndrome display attributes identical to those with autism, but in a milder form.

Those with PDD-NOS have some of the characteristics of autism but do not fit all the diagnostic criteria.

It is sometimes referred to as atypical autism.

The exact cause of autism is unknown although some research suggests it may be linked to genetic factors.


Abnormal social development

They struggle to develop social relationships and may be unable to relate to others.

They have difficulty recognising or understanding other people's emotions and expressing their own.

They can also fail to understand social or unwritten rules about what is appropriate or expected in given situations. For example, they may stand too close to others as they do not understand the social norms governing personal space.

Communication deficits

They have trouble comprehending both verbal and non-verbal language.

Many have a very literal understanding of language and are unable to grasp abstract concepts.

They can find it difficult to use or understand facial expressions or tone of voice, jokes and sarcasm, and common figurative phrases, like describing something as 'cool' to mean trendy, not of a low temperature.

Suffers tend to repeat words, show abnormalities in rhythm and pitch, and use abnormal gestures.

Restricted and repetitive interests and behaviour

They tend to engage in repetitive play patterns, like collecting and lining up objects, or develop a preoccupation or attachment to random things.

Many tend to resist change and are insistent on routines. The amount of difficulty experienced by sufferers varies from person to person.

People with autism have no marked physical abnormalities and look like the average person on the street.

Autism strikes males far more commonly than females, at a ratio of about 4:1. Singapore has about 24,000 people with ASD, with about 5,500 under the age of 19.

There is no known cure for autism.