Autism spectrum condition (ASC) affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.
In children with ASC, the symptoms are present before three years of age, although a diagnosis can sometimes be made after the age of three.
It's estimated that about 1 in every 100 people in the UK has ASC. More boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls.
There's no "cure" for ASC, but speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, plus a number of other interventions are available to help children and parents.
People with ASC tend to have problems with social interaction and communication.
In early infancy, some children with ASC don’t babble or use other vocal sounds. Older children have problems using non-verbal behaviours to interact with others – for example, they have difficulty with eye contact, facial expressions, body language and gestures. They may give no or brief eye contact and ignore familiar or unfamiliar people.
Children with ASC may also lack awareness of and interest in other children. They’ll often either gravitate to older or younger children, rather than interacting with children of the same age. They tend to play alone.
They can find it hard to understand other people's emotions and feelings, and have difficulty starting conversations or taking part in them properly. Language development may be delayed, and a child with ASC won’t compensate their lack of language or delayed language skills by using gestures (body language) or facial expressions.
Children with ASC will tend to repeat words or phrases spoken by others (either immediately or later) without formulating their own language, or in parallel to developing their language skills. Some children don’t demonstrate imaginative or pretend play, while others will continually repeat the same pretend play.
Some children with ASC like to stick to the same routine and little changes may trigger tantrums. Some children may flap their hand or twist or flick their fingers when they’re excited or upset. Others may engage in repetitive activity, such as turning light switches on and off, opening and closing doors, or lining things up.
Children and young people with ASC frequently experience a range of cognitive (thinking), learning, emotional and behavioural problems. For example, they may also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression.
About 70% of children with ASC have a non-verbal IQ below 70. Of these, 50% have a non-verbal IQ below 50. Overall, up to 50% of people with "severe learning difficulties" have an ASC.
The main features of ASC – problems with social communication and interaction – can often be recognised during early childhood.
Some features of ASC may not become noticeable until a change of situation, such as when the child starts nursery or school.
See your GP or health visitor if you notice any of the signs and symptoms of ASC in your child, or if you're concerned about your child's development. It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns with your child's nursery or school.
The exact cause of ASC is unknown, but it's thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved.
In the past, some people believed the MMR vaccine caused ASC, but this has been investigated extensively in a number of major studies around the world, involving millions of children, and researchers have found no evidence of a link between MMR and ASC.