Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that affects a person's social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour. Signs of ASD are present from childhood. See your GP or health visitor if you notice signs of ASD in your child, or you're concerned about their development, (see section below).

About autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

In children with ASD, 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 has ASD. More boys are diagnosed with the condition than girls. About half of those with ASD will have a learning disability.

There's no "cure" for ASD. But speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, plus a number of other supports are available to help children and parents.

Asperger's disorder is a different form of ASD, associated with symptoms that are not as severe. People with Asperger's disorder usually have fewer problems with speech and are much less likely to have a learning disability.

Signs and symptoms

The main features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are problems with social communication and interaction.

Signs of ASD in pre-school children

Spoken language

  • delayed speech development (for example, speaking less than 50 different words by the age of two), or not speaking at all
  • frequent repeating of set words and phrases
  • speech that sounds very lacking in tone or flat
  • preferring to communicate using single words, despite being able to speak in sentences

Responding to others

  • not responding to their name being called, despite having normal hearing
  • rejecting cuddles from a parent or carer (although they may bring about cuddles themselves)
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else

Interacting with others

  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age
  • not enjoying situations that most children of their age like, such as birthday parties
  • preferring to play alone, rather than asking others to play with them
  • rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact

Behaviour

  • having repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, or flicking their fingers
  • playing with toys in a repetitive and unimaginative way, such as lining blocks up in order of size or colour, rather than using them to build something
  • preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to this routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste
  • unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately

Signs and symptoms of ASD in school-age children

Spoken language

  • preferring to avoid using spoken language
  • speech that sounds very lacking in tone  or flat
  • speaking in pre-learned phrases, rather than putting together individual words to form new sentences
  • seeming to talk "at" people, rather than sharing a two-way conversation

Responding to others

  • taking people’s speech literally and being unable to understand sarcasm or figures of speech
  • reacting unusually negatively when asked to do something by someone else

Interacting with others

  • not being aware of other people’s personal space, or being unusually intolerant of people entering their own personal space
  • little interest in interacting with other people, including children of a similar age, or having few close friends, despite attempts to form friendships
  • not understanding how people normally interact socially, such as greeting people or wishing them farewell
  • being unable to adapt the tone and content of their speech to different social situations – for example, speaking very formally at a party and then speaking to total strangers in a familiar way
  • not enjoying situations and activities that most children of their age enjoy
  • rarely using gestures or facial expressions when communicating
  • avoiding eye contact

Behaviour

  • repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, rocking back and forth, or flicking their fingers
  • playing in a repetitive and unimaginative way, often preferring to play with objects rather than people
  • developing a highly specific interest in a particular subject or activity
  • preferring to have a familiar routine and getting very upset if there are changes to their normal routine
  • having a strong like or dislike of certain foods based on the texture or colour of the food as much as the taste
  • unusual sensory interests – for example, children with ASD may sniff toys, objects or people inappropriately

Children and young people with ASD often 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.

Getting a diagnosis

The main features of ASD – problems with social communication and interaction – can often be recognised during early childhood.

Some features of ASD 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 ASD 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.

Caring for someone with ASD

If you're caring for someone else, it's important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible. It's in your best interests and those of the person you care for.

Causes of ASD

The exact cause of ASD is unknown. It's thought that several complex genetic and environmental factors are involved.

In the past, some people mistakenly believed the MMR vaccine caused ASD. 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 ASD.

Autism in adults

Some people with ASD had features of the condition as a child, but become adults without ever being diagnosed.

Getting a diagnosis as an adult can often help a person with ASD and their families understand the condition. It can also help to work out what type of advice and support they need.

For example, a number of autism-specific services are available that provide adults with ASD with help and support, see more useful links.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

Health conditions A to Z

Search by health condition or symptoms

Or find conditions beginning with …

Share this page

What do you want to do?
What is your question about?
Do you want a reply?
Your email address
To reply to you, we need your email address
Your feedback

We will not reply to your feedback.  Don't include any personal or financial information, for example National Insurance, credit card numbers, or phone numbers.

This feedback form is for issues with the nidirect website only.

You can use it to report a problem or suggest an improvement to a webpage.

If you have a question about a government service or policy, you should contact the relevant government organisation directly as we don’t have access to information about you held by government departments.

You must be aged 13 years or older - if you’re younger, ask someone with parental responsibility to send the feedback for you.

The nidirect privacy notice applies to any information you send on this feedback form.

Don't include any personal or financial information, for example National Insurance, credit card numbers, or phone numbers.

Plain text only, 750 characters maximum.
Plain text only, 750 characters maximum.

What to do next

Comments or queries about angling can be emailed to anglingcorrespondence@daera-ni.gov.uk 

What to do next

If you have a comment or query about benefits, you will need to contact the government department or agency which handles that benefit.  Contacts for common benefits are listed below.

Carer's Allowance

Call 0800 587 0912
Email 
dcs.incomingpostteamdhc2@nissa.gsi.gov.uk

Discretionary support / Short-term benefit advance

Call 0800 587 2750 
Email 
customerservice.unit@communities-ni.gov.uk

Disability Living Allowance

Call 0800 587 0912 
Email dcs.incomingpostteamdhc2@nissa.gsi.gov.uk

Employment and Support Allowance

Call 0800 587 1377

Jobseeker’s Allowance

Contact your local Jobs & Benefits office

Personal Independence Payment

Call 0800 587 0932

If your query is about another benefit, select ‘Other’ from the drop-down menu above.

What to do next

Comments or queries about the Blue Badge scheme can be emailed to bluebadges@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk or you can also call 0300 200 7818.

What to do next

For queries or advice about careers, contact the Careers Service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about Child Maintenance, contact the Child Maintenance Service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about claiming compensation due to a road problem, contact DFI Roads claim unit.

What to do next

For queries or advice about criminal record checks, email ani@accessni.gov.uk

What to do next

Application and payment queries can be emailed to ema_ni@slc.co.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about employment rights, contact the Labour Relations Agency.

What to do next

For queries or advice about birth, death, marriage and civil partnership certificates and research, contact the General Register Office Northern Ireland (GRONI) by email gro_nisra@finance-ni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries about:

If your query is about another topic, select ‘Other’ from the drop-down menu above.

What to do next

For queries or advice about passports, contact HM Passport Office.

What to do next

For queries or advice about Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs), including parking tickets and bus lane PCNs, email dcu@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about pensions, contact the Northern Ireland Pension Centre.

What to do next

If you wish to report a problem with a road or street you can do so online in this section.

If you wish to check on a problem or fault you have already reported, contact DfI Roads.

What to do next

For queries or advice about historical, social or cultural records relating to Northern Ireland, use the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) enquiry service.

What to do next

For queries or advice about rates, email LPSCustomerTeam@lpsni.gov.uk

What to do next

For queries or advice about  60+ and Senior Citizen SmartPasses (which can be used to get concessionary travel on public transport), contact Smartpass - Translink.