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Autism spectrum condition (ASC) affects social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.

It's estimated that about 1 in every 100 people in the UK has ASC. More boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls although it is thought that ASC in girls is under recognised.

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.

Signs and symptoms

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 of their own age. They’ll often either gravitate to older or younger children, or spend a lot of time alone. They can find it hard to understand other people's points of view, 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 always compensate their lack of language or delayed language skills by using gestures (body language) or facial expressions.

Children with ASC sometimes  tend to repeat words or phrases spoken by others (either immediately or later) without formulating their own language. Some children don’t  do 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 or meltdowns. Some children may flap their hands 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.  Some have strong or obsessive interests; these may change over time or develop and they may spend a lot of time researching or talking about their special subjects or interests.

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.

Young people on the autism spectrum can have a number of strengths – they may be very good in certain subjects like maths, music, computing, and their thinking and memory can be very detailed or logical. Some learn to read earlier than usual, or show great interest in numbers and letters from early on. Parents often find their son or daughter can have a unique outlook on life and a distinctive sense of humour. They may also have a strong sense of justice and fairness. Strengths can be harnessed to help a child develop self esteem.

Getting a diagnosis

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 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.

Find further information in the quick guide for young people and their families produced by SCIE and NICE.

What causes ASC?

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.