What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental disability that affects the development of the brain in areas of social interaction and communication. People with autism have difficulties in communicating and forming relationships with people, in developing language and in using abstract concepts. It also impacts on their ability to make sense of the world around them.

Autism is described as a ‘spectrum’ disorder. This means that the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a wide variety of combinations and can range from mild to severe. Two people with the same diagnosis can act very differently from one another and have varying skills. Autism Spectrum Disorder is also referred to as ASD.

Autism is often referred to as the ‘hidden’ disability because people who are on the autistic spectrum show no significant physical difference to their peers, rather it is their behaviours that mark them out as different. The 3 main areas of difficulty for people with autism are referred to as the ‘triad of impairments’.

Social communication
Social interaction
Social imagination

There is a fourth area which has been identified as presenting people with autism with significant difficulties and that is the area of sensory processing. Sensory processing difficulties are indicated by either an over or under sensitivity across any or all of the senses.

How many people have Autism?

There are no official statistics in Ireland on the number of people who have autism.

Prevalence Study Autism Counts – Irish Autism Action has funded a study that determined the number of people in Ireland who are on the autism spectrum. By providing a concrete figure for incidence of autism the Irish Autism Prevalence Study will make a compelling case for the State to invest in resources for autistic people. This study was carried out in conjunction with DCU and lead by Professor Anthony Staines. The study concluded that the current rate of autism in Ireland is 1 in 100.

This figure is similar to the figure of incidence in the United Kingdom where the latest prevalence studies of autism indicate that 1.1% of the population in the UK may have autism.

Although it is widely maintained that the increase in incidence can, in part, be attributed to better diagnostic procedures, it is apparent that the condition itself is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide.

What we do know is that the number of young children coming into the system each year is significantly greater than in the past and that the autism community in Ireland is growing and ageing. Therefore demand for services to meet the needs of this special population will also continue to grow.

What causes Autism?

Scientists are not certain what causes autism but research into autism and genetics has shown that it is likely autism is genetically pre- determined. However research is on-going to determine which genes may be relevant and to what degree environmental ‘triggers’ may be involved in the increase in incidence.

It is possible that there is not one cause for autism but that there are several factors involved. The theory that a way a child was parented was in any way a cause of autism has long been dismissed.

Further information on current research into causes of autism