Autism Spectrum Disorder: the facts

Compiled by the Autism Research team, led by Professor Katrina Williams

Children with autism spectrum disorder (autism) have difficulties with social communication sufficient to cause problems for them. Social communication describes a broad set of skills, such as using eye contact and gestures when talking, taking turns in conversation, and changing behaviour to suit different situations (for example, using different language and tone or volume when talking with family members compared to strangers). Children with autism also have highly focused special interests or activities, are resistant to change and/or problems with increased or decreased responses to sensory stimulation, like loud noises, bright light or touch.

Although children with autism have features in common there is great variability in the characteristics of individuals with autism – no two people who have Autism are the same. This means that more information is needed to identify each child’s abilities and the things they have difficulties with, including their intelligence, and their speech and language ability. Other factors also contribute to the needs of children with autism, like their ability to concentrate, whether they are anxious, and their temperament or disposition.

It is thanks to the many families who have participated in research that we have come a long way in our understanding of autism – without their continued commitment and time taken to volunteer in studies we would not be where we are today. Some of the interesting things that have been learnt about autism so far include:

  • More than 1 in 100 children are diagnosed with an autism in Australia today. It is most likely that the increased number of people diagnosed with autism is due to changes in definitions, services and social awareness and attitudes.
  • Roughly four boys are diagnosed with autism for every one girl – we are still trying to learn more about why this gender difference occurs, including looking at genetic, environmental, and behavioural differences that may influence how we assess or define autism.
  • Studies that look at the ways people behave have found a continuum between ‘autism’ and ‘not autism’ – with people who do not meet criteria for autism having thoughts, skills, and characteristics similar to those who are diagnosed but perhaps in one domain or of a lesser severity.
  • One study has found that nearly 50% of individuals with autism had multiple common variant genes – that is genes that many of us will have at least one of. This fits with the idea of a continuum between those with autism and other people.
  • Other genetic studies are also finding changes to single genes that increase the risk of having autism and an increasing minority of children with autism have single gene abnormalities.
  • Although many non-genetic causes of autism have been suggested none have yet been proven and some, like specific immunisations, have been disproven.   
  • A variety of interventions can assist children with their communication skills and reduce challenging behaviours. It is important that interventions focus on building on the child’s strengths as well as focus on areas of difficulty.
  • Although a broad range of preventions and interventions are marketed, many of these have not proven effective. 
  • Children with autism, like other people, can change and learn over time. In this way, not all children who are diagnosed with autism at an early age will continue to meet criteria when they are older.
  • Although autism is characterised by difficulties with social interaction, communication, and aspects of behaviour, individuals with autism often have many strengths and talents, and may outperform people without autism in many ways.

There is still a great deal we can learn about autism to help individuals and their families. A number of studies for children with autism are conducted on the Royal Children’s Hospital Campus comprising Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, The Royal Children’s Hospital, and University of Melbourne, in collaboration with external partners. You can read more about Murdoch Childrens research projects currently looking for participants.

More information about autism can be found at:

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