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Autism Awareness Month: What is Autism?

Updated: Apr 26

by Steve Taylor


According to the Centre for Disease Control, “autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or autism, is a broad term used to describe a group of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by differences in communication and social interaction. People with ASD often demonstrate restricted and repetitive interests or patterns of behaviour and may have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech, and nonverbal communication.”


Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The ways in which people with autism learn to think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.


“There is no one type of autism, just like there is no one type of person”


Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures, or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.


Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months.

Research has shown that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.


A meta-analysis study published by the University of California, Santa Barbara, compiled data proving that “most research clinics report that, with intervention, most children will be included in regular education classrooms, and as many as 25% of children will lose the diagnosis completely (Cohen, Amerine Dickens, & Smith, 2006; Helt, Kelley, Kinsbourne, Pandey, Boorstein, Herbert, et al., 2008; Lovaas, 1987; Sallows & Graupner, 2005).”


We have seen this occur in real life at WillowWood and witnessed the remarkable growth that can occur when a strong foundation for academic and social development is established early in a child’s life. (Hats off to our lower school teachers, Jill Block, and the Foundations Program for the amazing work they do every day. By the time many of our students with ASD reach college or university, you might never know that they are (or were?) on the spectrum.