Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Autism is a condition related to brain development that affects how you behave, communicate and interact. Read about what causes autism and common symptoms.

What is autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability where your brain works differently from others. Its full name is autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – ‘spectrum’ means that autism symptoms can vary between different people.

It’s a condition that you’re born with or that appears very young. While there’s no cure for autism, there’s lots of help and support available to overcome the difficulties and live a full and happy life.

What causes autism?

The exact cause of autism, or whether there is a cause, isn’t clear. It’s thought there’s a genetic link in some people with a close family member who has autism, but this isn’t the case for everyone.

Autism isn’t caused by vaccines (like the MMR vaccine, which had previously been incorrectly linked to autism), infection, diet or parenting.

Autism risk factors

Other factors that can increase the risk of your child having autism include:

  • Gender – Autism affects boys more than girls

  • Certain medical conditions – Children with disorders including fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome have a higher-than-average chance of being autistic

  • Extremely premature babies – Babies born before 26 weeks have a greater risk of autism

Autism symptoms

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that the symptoms – and their severity – can vary a lot from person to person.

Some of the things that people with autism often have difficulty with include:

  • Communication skills – You may have limited or no speech, or you may have good language skills but find it hard to understand verbal and non-verbal clues, like the tone of someone’s voice and their body language

  • Social interaction – It’s common to find it hard to express your emotions and understand how others feel. This can cause social problems as people may think you’re insensitive or rude

  • Heightened senses – You might be over-or under-sensitive to light, sound, taste or touch, making everyday situations difficult, like eating out or going shopping

  • Repetitive movements – Doing things like flapping your hands or rocking might help you to deal with difficult situations

  • Anxiety – Many people with autism also experience mental health problems, and anxiety is extremely common, especially in unfamiliar or social situations or when facing change

  • Fear of unfamiliar situations – Routine might help you to feel safer and more in control. You might always eat the same foods, take the same journeys or follow the same pattern of activities each day

  • Meltdowns and shutdowns – When you feel overwhelmed, you might have a meltdown involving shouting, crying, or becoming physical and kicking or throwing things. You might do the opposite and shut down completely

How is autism diagnosed?

The only way to be diagnosed with autism is through a specialist autism assessment. You’ll need to be referred for this by:

  • A doctor

  • Another health professional, like a therapist or a health worker, if it’s for pre-school children

  • Special educational needs staff (SENCO) from your child’s school

It can take several months to get an assessment, even after you’ve been referred. This can be frustrating, but there’s lots of other support that you can access through a doctor, education services, and local support services run by charities.

What happens at an autism assessment?

The assessment may be done during one long appointment or a series of shorter ones, and it varies depending on whether a child or an adult is being assessed.

Children’s autism assessments involve:

  • Observing how a child plays and how they interact with their parents and other people

  • Talking to parents or carers about the child’s development

  • Reading reports sent by the GP and school or nursery

  • Sometimes visiting the child’s nursery or school to see how they behave in this setting

If you’re an adult being assessed for autism, it will involve:

  • Completing a questionnaire about yourself and your symptoms

  • Reading reports from the GP

  • Talking to other people who knew you as a child

After the assessment, you’ll receive a report which will confirm if you or your child are autistic and which areas you may need help with.

Autism treatment and support

Autism is a condition that affects everyone differently, so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to treatment. There are many different strategies and interventions that can help you cope with the symptoms of autism and to help families manage daily life.

Medical treatment

There are no medical treatments that doctors use to treat autism specifically. But medication can often help with related symptoms like anxiety and depression, sleeping problems and seizures.

Educational support

Many children receive extra support through the education system. This may be through SENCO in mainstream education or at a school that specialises in autism and other disabilities.

Different strategies and approaches are often used by professionals working with autistic people, like SPELL and TEACCH:

  • SPELL – This stands for Structure,  Positive approaches and expectations,  Empathy,  Low arousal, Links. It’s a helpful framework for understanding and responding to the needs of autistic children and adults.

  • TEACCH – This approach involves Teaching, Expanding, Appreciating, Collaborating and Cooperating and Holistic methods to educate people with autism and encourage independence.

These different methods can be used together to help children develop life skills and manage stress-related behaviours.


Different types of therapy that can be helpful include:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – Helps you understand how your thoughts affect your behaviour and teaches you coping strategies for different situations

  • Psychoanalytic counselling – An approach that looks at your subconscious and your past

  • Play therapy – A helpful therapy where your child engages in play activities of their choice with a play therapist to help improve their social and emotional skills

  • Other specialist therapies such as speech and language therapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy may also be recommended

Further support

Whether you have autism or you are caring for someone else who has autism, it’s essential to get support. Self-help and support groups can be a positive way to address your emotions by talking to others who are in a similar situation and sharing your own experiences with them.

For wider services available, search the Autism Services Directory. It lists residential, supported living and respite services, counselling, employment support, social groups and leisure activities, accredited courses and more.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi