About Autism

About Autism

About Autism

Generally speaking, autistic people don’t look different than anyone else. However, the way that they communicate or interact with the world around them might look different than what we are used to.

There are a variety of features (listed below) that can make up a diagnosis of autism. Each individual can have any combination - or any degree of severity - of those traits.

It's important to remember that autism is a "spectrum disorder". This means that, just as the features and symptoms of autism are extremely varied, the impact and severity of the symptoms experienced by each person will also vary significantly.

This contributes to why some autistic people can experience very complex issues. While they may excel in some areas of life, they may really struggle in other areas.

Because autism is a developmental disorder, the characteristics presented may change with age, with certain symptoms becoming more or less pronounced throughout a person’s lifetime.

Girl hugging cat

Autism is a neurological condition that impacts how the brain functions. The result is that many individuals with autism experience communication challenges, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. However, how autism affects an individual can vary a lot from person to person. It is a “spectrum” disorder because each autistic individual is unique.

Autistic individuals may have a cognitive impairment or an intellectual disability. Their autism can be accompanied by co-occurring medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal (gut) abnormalities and immune dysregulation. Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression are common. Any of these conditions may severely impact an individual’s quality of life.

Sensory problems are extremely common. Autistic people may be hyper or hypo-sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, touch and/or taste. For example, loud noises, bright lights, scratchy clothes, or certain textures can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Autistic people might also have an unusually high tolerance for pain, which can be extremely dangerous.

Autism is usually first diagnosed in childhood, with many of the most-obvious signs presenting around 2-3 years old. According to the 2019 Canadian Health Survey on children and youth, 1 in 50 children and youth in Canada are autistic, with boys being diagnosed four to five times more frequently than girls. In the greater Edmonton area, it is estimated that over 26,000 individuals are autistic.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects someone from birth and while both genetics and environment likely play a role, research has yet to pinpoint its exact cause.

Is there a ‘cure’ for autism?

There is no cure for autism. Autism can present many challenges but there are many approaches and forms of support that can help transform lives.

It’s critical that we protect autistic people from harmful or illegal interventions.

It is important to know that vaccines do not cause autism. No links have been found connecting vaccines with a higher risk of developing ASD. Immunize Canada states that “the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) has conducted evidence-based reviews and has rejected any causal associations between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders in children.” Separate Danish and Canadian research has also confirmed these findings. The idea of a link between autism and vaccines originated due to a now-discredited study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and published in the medical journal called The Lancet in 1998. The Lancet fully retracted the discredited paper in 2010. An investigation published by the British Medical Journal found the study to be fraudulent and that the medical histories in the study had been altered and misrepresented by Wakefield (Wakefield was later stripped of his license to practice medicine).

How does autism impact people?

Autism is a hidden or invisible disability. You can’t see if someone is autistic just by looking at them; some people might not have been diagnosed when you met them. There are some behaviours and ways of communication that an autistic person may use, but these aren’t universal, as every autistic person is different.

The characteristics of autism vary from one person to another, but there are some areas of difference.

Autistic people may find socializing and social interactions difficult. We use many unwritten rules when talking to someone else, and these rules aren’t always the same. Autistic people can find these rules difficult to remember or confusing because they aren’t always applied similarly. This means autistic people often find it difficult to understand other people’s intentions and express their own feelings.

Social interactions can often be tiring for autistic people, and difficulties ‘reading’ others can lead to loneliness and isolation. Autistic people don’t lack the skills to interact with others; they simply need more information and support to socialize with others.

Autistic people process sensory information differently, impacting how they interact with the environment and their ability to interact with other people.

An autistic person can be ‘under’ or ‘over’ sensitive in any of the senses – including sight, hearing, and balance. This means sounds, lights, touch, and smells can be painful or uncomfortable.

To reduce discomfort, some autistic people may wear sunglasses indoors, prefer not to be touched, wear ear defenders, or only eat specific foods.

While every person will develop differently and at a different pace, there are certain milestones that most children reach specific ages. For example, some “red flags” for children that indicate a possible need for assessment are:

  • not responding to their name (by 12 months of age);
  • not pointing at objects to show their interest (by 14 months);
  • not playing “pretend” or imaginary games (by 18 months).

Autistic people often have other conditions, making their support needs more complex. Read more about common conditions that someone can have alongside autism.


People with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) might be more hyperactive, struggle with lack of attention or act more impulsively than someone who does not have ADHD. Read more about ADHD or ADD and autism.

Common Signs of ADHD in Autism

ADHD is most often diagnosed in childhood or adolescence.

Some people with ADHD are hyperactive and impulsive. This means they (might not be able to):

  • wait their turn;
  • act without thinking;
  • sit still or constantly fidget;
  • talk excessively;
  • interrupt conversations.

Some people with ADHD have difficulty focusing. This means they (might):

  • have a short attention span;
  • are easily distracted;
  • lose things or are forgetful;
  • have difficulty concentrating;
  • have difficulty staying organized.

These problems can significantly impact day-to-day life and may lead to problems at school, such as underperformance. Symptoms from childhood often persist into adulthood but may be experienced differently. In extreme cases, adults with ADHD have been linked with higher rates of addiction and employment issues.

In both children and adults, ADHD can occur with other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Mental health conditions are more common in autistic people. Read more about anxiety and depression in autism.

Mental Health Concerns

Research has found that four out of five young people with autism have experienced mental health issues.

Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders, are more common in autistic people and greatly impact their daily lives, often hindering their ability to access full education and employment opportunities.

Learning Disabilities

A learning disability affects how a person learns new things throughout their lifetime. Around four in ten autistic people have a learning disability. The level of support someone with a learning disability needs depends on the individual. For example, someone with a mild learning disability may need more time to learn a new skill. A person with a severe learning disability might need full-time care and support.


Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain and causes frequent seizures. It is more common in autistic people than in the general population. Read more about epilepsy.

Eating Disorders

The severe eating disorder Anorexia Nervosa is much more common in autistic women than in non-autistic women, affecting both men and women. Research has found that factors behind this include high anxiety levels and sensory issues around food.

People with anorexia lose weight by restricting calories, although the factors that drive anorexia may differ in autistic people.

Anorexia has the worst outcomes of any mental health condition, with 1 in 5 people dying early, mostly due to starvation or suicide.

Common symptoms of anorexia in autism

Often, the main symptom of anorexia is a very low body weight relative to age and height, though other symptoms of anorexia may include:

  • missing meals or eating very little;
  • avoiding high-calorie foods;
  • lying about what they have eaten;
  • excessive exercising.

It is thought that weight and body shape may not be as important for autistic women with anorexia and that other autism-related factors cause the disease to persist.

Research shows that anorexia in autism is caused by

  • high levels of anxiety;
  • rigid, rule-driven eating and exercising behaviour;
  • sensory problems with food;
  • difficulties sensing hunger.

Autistic people describe themselves and autism differently, so just like pronouns, it is always best to ask the individual their preference. Some people may be unable to communicate their preferences in a way we can understand. If you can’t ask them, try asking someone who knows them well or use the language they use.

Words Matter

There is no single way of describing autism that is universally acceptable. When we asked our autistic self-advocates, the term they would like us to use is ‘autistic person’. They preferred this phrase over ‘person with autism’.

We use this most often when we write. But people have different preferences when describing themselves and autism. When you meet an autistic person, they might use different terms to describe themselves:

  • Autistic person
  • On the spectrum
  • Person with autism

Autism Edmonton will never correct someone about how they want to describe themselves. When communicating with an individual, we will use their preferences.

Terms We Avoid

There are some terms used to describe autism that is out of date and do more harm than good. Though many of these terms are rooted in historical understandings of autism, the terminology and language we use must evolve as we update and expand our own knowledge of autism:

  • We don’t use the terms ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’. Instead, we describe a person’s support needs. For example, some autistic people may need higher levels of support than others.
  • We say ‘distressed behaviours’ or ‘behaviours that challenge’ rather than ‘challenging behaviour’. An individual shouldn’t be defined by certain behaviours. It is important to note that all behaviours are a form of communication, so if someone is exhibiting a behaviour that challenges, it is best to try and figure out what they are trying to communicate to you.
  • We don’t use terms like ‘genius’ to describe autistic people. The ‘Rain Man’ stereotype isn’t the experience of most autistic people and, therefore, unhelpful in understanding the lived experiences of autism.
  • We say non-speaking/minimally speaking instead of “non-verbal”. Semantically speaking, the word non-verbal means “without words;” non-speaking individuals have words but cannot speak them.
  • When talking about autism, avoid terms like ‘suffer’ or ‘disease’. It’s not a mental health condition or a disease; it is a different way of experiencing and processing the world around you.
  • Autism is a difference of neurotype; it is not a deficit. The differences of all humans should be embraced and neurodiversity should be respected as just another way of being.

To understand autism, it is essential to listen to and value what autistic people say about their experiences. Lived experience is extremely valuable, and the voices of all autistic people matter.

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